The Nuclear Family Dies at the 'River's Edge'

This mid-'80s obscurity is a chilling depiction of the violence amongst those who find themselves on the fringes of society's moral landscape.

River's Edge

Director: Tim Hunter
Cast: Crispin Glover, Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, Roxana Zal, Daniel Roebuck, Joshua Miller, Dennis Hopper
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Rated: R
US DVD Release Date: 2015-01-13

Very little unites the characters of River's Edge, save for their shared anguish and pain. The film begins after a boy called John (Daniel Roebuck) has killed a young girl, ostensibly his friend. He sits next to her naked corpse alongside the edge of a river, staring off in the distance -- or, rather, nothingnness. From afar, a young boy, Tim (Joshua John Miller) sees John next to the body. One might think John has been caught and the game is now up, but not long after Tim sees the scene of the crime, it becomes clear that there's a reason why John was sitting by the body of his victim, seemingly without worry that someone might stumble upon what he had done.

Based on the horrific 1981 murder of 14-year-old Marcy Renee Conrad by the 16-year-old Anthony Jacques Broussard, River's Edge documents what happens when John begins to brag about killing the young girl, Jamie. Although there's a shockwave sent through his group of friends when he reveals what he's done -- at first his friends don't believe him -- no one bothers to tell an authority figure. No one cries out in outrage at what has happened. For the most part, the general reaction is best captured by the face of Matt (Keanu Reeves) when he sees Jamie's body: quiet terror. However, de facto group leader Layne (Crispin Glover, chewing every bit of scenery he can) goes into full-on damage control, doing the best he can to cover up John's actions.

The parallels between the Conrad murder and the fictional one in River's Edge are twofold: 1. the killing went unreported for several days, and 2. the killer bragged about his actions to his friends, who kept it to themselves. These are startling facts, and they are brought to vivid life by the bleak moral universe of River's Edge. As Matt and others in the group struggle with the weight of what John has done, Layne's actions become more frenetic. Based on notions of loyalty that are never explained in the film, Layne continually drills into Matt that everyone has to "stick together", lest their gang be torn apart by the murder.

The problem with those notions of loyalty is that, like most other relationships in River's Edge, they are merely asserted. Aside from feeling isolated and angry -- not to mention a penchant for heavy metal music -- there's little that brings any of these young people together. Outside of this group, Layne's only friend is Feck (Dennis Hopper), a runaway murderer and shut-in, who occasionally provides him with drugs.

These are kids atomized from the social structures that surround them. Their home lives, particularly Matt and Tim's, are broken. They find school rote and boring. Most of all, they don't have any attachment to a system of law, to the point that a heinous crime gives them no initial spur to inform law enforcement. When Matt finally fesses up to the cops, their conversation quickly grows heated; he cares enough about what's happened to lead the police in the right direction, but not enough to show that he has trust in or respect for them.

Although director Tim Hunter and writer Neal Jimenez create an effectively disturbing world with River's Edge, the disenchantment they depict is not given much substantiation. It's plain to see these are angsty, frustrated individuals, but little in the way of backstory lets the audience know why these teenagers arrived at so terrible a place. Moreover, it doesn't help that many of these characters are genuinely unlikable, particularly Layne, whom Glover gives an accent that those who have seen the Saturday Night Live sketch "The Californians" will know all too well. His over-the-top performance represents well the hollow core at this supposed group of friends, but it's nonetheless grating even as it makes that point.

The audience is afforded some glimmers of the social context from which these teens will arise. Matt and Tim's family life, such as it is, represents a microcosm of the collapse of the suburbanite nuclear family at the latter end of the Reagan presidency. Their mother is overworked, and her new boyfriend hangs out at her house all day, doing nothing. Whenever she tries to control her kids, especially the brooding Tim, all she can do is scream threats that she'll never deliver on. In a time when family-first conservatism was engaging in an intense culture war -- the Parents Music Resource Center controversy happened but one year before River's Edge was released -- the alienation from the family unit experienced by Matt and Tim rings true. Insights like these are few and far between with the other characters, but as the movie's (pseudo) moral core, Matt's story is appropriately emphasized.

This devolution of the family is further drawn out in a classroom discussion following the public announcement of the murder. When a teacher, befuddled by the fact that no one reported the murder even though it was known for several days, brings the subject up in class, one student chimes in, "I just want to say it was horrible what those kids did. And the whole incident points up a fundamental moral breakdown in our society." The teacher responds, "Thank you, Kevin, for your insightful self-righteous indignation."

Here the audience is given some insight as to why families like Matt and Tim's can crumble even in the seemingly safe environment of suburban America. Just as Layne's platitudes about loyalty amongst friends are baseless, so too are the values of the Moral Majority. Once upon a time, ethical claims like those made by the "family values" groups in the '80s may have had some intellectual rigor and substance. However, when right or wrong actions are defined not in terms of their actual ethical value but rather by political posturing, there's no reason why individuals should feel connected with each other, even if they're bonded by family or close friendships. Had the student's claim to the teacher simply been, "What those kids did was horrible," he would be right. But instead, he chooses to frame it in terms of old orders being replaced by new ones, of "the breakdown of society".

The dissociated teens of River's Edge find themselves caught in the battle happening in the liminal space between the nuclear family and what came after it, dodging bullets in a culture war they were thrust into without a choice. As such, it's no wonder that one of the few commonalities between the lot of them is heavy metal. As Adrien Begrand notes in "Blood and Thunder: Metal Is for the Children" (PopMatters, 19 February 2015) River's Edge is a rare depiction of the cathartic effect heavy metal provides, particularly to young people. As he rightly identifies, the "unspoken refrain" of these kids is: "I just don’t know how to handle this situation, or the rest of my life for that matter." The thrashy rhythms and harsh vocals of Slayer, Fates Warning, and Agent Orange provide an avenue for channeling their anger. Headbanging becomes a sign of recognition and mutual hardships amongst friends, if one could call them that.

Unfortunately, while much of these unspoken conflicts come through the film -- the collapse of the family unit, the inability to see beyond terrible circumstances -- there's ultimately too much that's left unsaid. The forces that would lead a teenage boy to kill a girl he regularly hung out with, to say nothing of those forces that would keep shut the mouths of his friends who know that he's done wrong, are no doubt too many to capture in a 99 minute film. While River's Edge gets at some of them, there are too many times in its sordid tale where the silence needs to be broken. The sound of metal riffs coming from a car stereo can only say so much.

The only extra included in Kino Lorber's excellent Blu-ray transfer of the film is a trailer.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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