by Sam Juliano
A persuasive case could be made for 1986’s subversive River’s Edge as the most nihilist film about teenagers ever made. The fact that this perverse drama was directed by one who just four years earlier gave the coming-of-age angle a conventional if perceptive spin in Tex, (based on the S.E. Hinton novel) makes it all the more startling, but to be sure Tim Hunter was filtering an unconscionable event that took place in California in 1981. Without the factual underpinning the story would read as over-the-top fraudulence, fueled by its sensational implausibility. But when a 16 year old male named Anthony Jacques Broussard raped and murdered his 14 year-old girlfriend, and then bragged about the act to all his friends, the stage was set for a work that would invariably document the moral decline of today’s adolescents. The disturbing revelation that these kids could wait two days to contact police, bound by in large measure the gang mentality of a mercurial, stoned teenager who incredibly deems loyalty to the apathetic and unappreciative killer should come before informing, makes for a dire commentary on the disintegration of the moral compass, and the utter heartlessness of disaffected and dysfunctional youth without direction or priorities. In an age when senseless violence – by young gunmen – is often aimed at schoolchildren, churchgoers and those who are simply in the wrong place at the most inopportune time, we can look back at Broussard’s act and the screenplay Neil Jimenez wrote for Mr. Hunter and conclude that the breakdown chronicled is deep-seeded, with both the killer and his bizarre first protector as soulless perpetrators of a doomed deceit that never even had a remote chance to succeed. The fact that it was even attempted is unspeakably chilling.
The opening scene of River’s Edge showcases the harrowing premise. A young and rugged 12 year-old juvenile delinquent in the making, Tim, spitefully tosses his younger sister’s beloved doll from a bridge into the river. This unfeeling act is juxtaposed with one far more heinous, as in short order we see a much bigger and older boy named Samson (nicknamed John) sitting along a riverbank smoking a cigarette, alongside of his violated girlfriend Jamie, whom he strangled, purportedly because she said something objectionable about his mother. Samson stares emotionless, devoid of remorse or any kind of concern for the obvious ramifications. The thematic connection between killing a doll and a real person takes flight in a narrative that isn’t adverse to some black humor and anomalous characters. One of the latter group is a older man named Feck, a deranged recluse who showcases a doll as his true love, provides the locals teenagers with pot, and repeatedly declares “I killed a girl once.” In any event, Tim witnesses Samson and the dead body, and later tells the killer he knows all about it while providing him with the beer he shoplifted from a local convenience mart, while the clerk was turning down the older boy in a heated exchange over I.D. Samson’s initial admission is taken by his friends and classmates as empty braggadocio, a sick joke aimed at getting a rise out of some. When he leads the group on a tour to the ghastly spot, assisted by the pushy Lane -who secures the services of his friend Mike’s pickup for transportation – they are in disbelief. Only when Lane pokes the body with a broken tree branch does he realize the boast was all too real. He tells John he’s “a sick mother fucker” but then spends the rest of the film’s running time trying to conceal the murder and strong arm all the witnesses into remaining silent. One of the scariest aspects of the film is the psychotic one that suggests that any sane person could possibly believe that everyone would keep something of this magnitude under wraps forever. Lane is a strung out marauder, embracing a dubious code of conduct that would be laughable if it wasn’t executed with the utmost seriousness. Though the girls -some of whom were close friends with the victim- are quicker to note the impropriety of the situation, they are still hesitant to act against Lane’s unremitting pressure which ludicrously poses the idea that Jamie is dead, but John is ALIVE!, and deserves their full support. Delivering a caricatured performance that comes off as paranoiac and bullying, the actor Crispin Glover with reedy and pausing voice complete with animated limbs is undeniably the film’s most fascinating character, though Dennis Hopper’s Feck is a veritable scene stealer – another dark and unstable portrayal by the charismatic actor who in the same calendar year gave the movie world the infamous Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Feck lives inside a locked house, as reclusive as Boo Radley, yet on the other hand with a professed desire to entertain, as he asserted during John’s hiding out time in the seedy house.
At the center of the film is the complete breakdown of parental authority, and the resulting familial dysfunction. The lovely Clarissa (played by the singer Donovan’s daughter Ione Skye Leitch) seems to have her parents’ blessing when she enters and exits in the middle of school nights; Matt (engagingly played by Keanu Reeves) is the older brother of Tim and a younger sister, and is the recipient of very little attention from his mother, a recreational drug user who is more interested in her live-in boyfriend. In one telling scene the mother admonishes Matt for smoking a joint in the house, asking him where he got it only to be assured by the teenager “Don’t worry, it’s not yours!” Some ugly altercations transpired between the boyfriend and Matt, but the real problem is young Tim, who brazenly tells his older sibling “you’ll die for what you did” after he finds out Matt eventually informed the police of the murder, thereby breaking the promise to remain silent, in an updated encore of “a pigeon for a pigeon.” A near-fratricide demonstrates just how close the family came to complete destruction. Samson (nicely played in stoic mode by Daniel Boebuck) lives with his grandmother, who asks him to read her Dr. Seuss picture books at bedtime; Tony’s father sits in his living room, itching to employ his shotgun to unwanted juvenile late-night trespassers, leaving Feck as the only possibility for moral guidance and redemption, but he’s too far gone in his own psychotic ramblings to offer much help.
Tim personifies the most extreme extent of parental disconnection. Ignoring his mother, defying his brother, and closing in on a situation of no return, he lobbies for weed, shoplifts, encourages another young boy his own age to swipe his father’s car keys and drive five years underage, and finally helps to clunk an adult on the head to secure a revolver that he comes very close to firing at another. Despite a final reconciliation, it is clear enough that things domestically have spiraled out of control, and reform at this point is inconceivable.
David Lynch’s cinematographer Frederick Elmes gives the film a grainy and rightfully unglamorous look, bringing together a documentary feel in the manner it lingers over the body, producing startling close-ups with visual cognizance of the setting – an ugly country town clearly on the far end of the tracks, with brown tinged river water, scraggly trees and unattended landscapes that are in tune with socioeconomic deprivation. The darkest vibes of all are transcribed on the soundtrack by Jurgen Knieper, who famously scored Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Knieper incorporates thrash metal music by Slayer and Fates Warning which helps to etch the nihilist theme with songs like “Evil Has No Boundaries,” “Die by the Sword” and “Captor of Sin” amongst others. Slayer have been intermittently banned for their focus on serial killers, necrophilia, Satanism, anti-religion and Nazism, and their music like their metal counterparts are trademarked by irregular riffs, double bass drumming and shouted vocals, which provide an appropriate aural counterpart for the alienation running rampant in this coven of teenage delinquency. Knieper’s original additions project a sense of danger and foreboding in this place of unrepentant criminality.
Above everything else, Hunter understands the essence of characters who are purposely left off the radar of parents who sow the seeds of impending disaster, even while some bemoan the results of their inactions. These are tough kids reared in familial absentia, where authority, punctuality, and a moral compass are non-existent, making the dire consequences a given. But adapting a real life scenario, Hunter and Jimenez have superbly explored the underbelly of youthful dislocation and the woefully misguided decisions that would lash out at civility and responsibility for a kind of depraved sense of loyalty. River’s Edge is mighty powerful.