Review by Alan Hogue
Posted on 15 November 2005
Source MGM DVD
It seems almost too obvious that human beings should have some basic grasp of human nature. It also seems obvious that they, living as they have in the world for a considerable amount of time, are relatively free of illusions about the society that they constitute. Indeed, the only thing more obvious than this simple observation is that it happens to be completely, tragically false. In fact, it’s a rare person who understands what they themselves want, or what their motivations are, though the world is brimming with people who think they do, or who weren’t aware they ought to have been asking the question in the first place.
River’s Edge can make one unusually, uncomfortably aware of this paradox of not knowing oneself: if a person is the initiator of their own actions and has direct access to his own thoughts and feelings, how is it possible that he can know so little about himself at the same time? When a group of high school friends is taken down to a river and shown the naked body of the girl one of them just murdered, for instance, how is it that they would not tell anyone or feel much for their dead friend? Is it plausible that they would instead conspire to hide the body of the girl in order to protect someone who, it becomes clear, is a straightforward sociopath bereft of most emotions and very likely to kill again?
Who would these teenagers be, what could be their motivation? Which answer seems most likely depends on your view of human nature. These kids could be evil, or they could be insane, or they could be broken people somehow robbed of normal human compassion or any sense of justice. Or they might be more or less ordinary kids, perhaps stunted from a squalid life in a small, nowhere town, where the only mental stimulation on offer comes from alcohol and pot.
River’s Edge is an intriguing and disturbing movie mainly because it opts for the latter explanation. The characters (apparently based on people the screenwriter, Neal Jimenez, grew up with in Sacramento, California), especially the main characters Matt and Clarissa, are rather ordinary people. And they could not tell you, and don’t know themselves, why they don’t report the crime or why it doesn’t effect them.
Apart from the killer, John, Layne is the only one of the group who thinks he understands the situation. He feels something and he knows what has to be done: John must be protected, the body must be hidden. He does not want to lose another friend. Played by Crispin Glover, the one person who knows instantly what to do and how he feels is the one who loses his mind. He feverishly plots to cover up the crime, justifying his actions with oddly seductive but utterly false reasoning. As one by one the others petulantly refuse to help him, he finds himself alone, to his mind, with the killer, the only true friend he has left in the world.
River’s Edge is written with a literary eye for parallelism and juxtaposition, and some of these devices are too obvious. The fate of the murdered girl, left out by the river for days, is accompanied by the story of a doll, formerly property of Matt’s little sister, thrown into the river by Matt’s younger brother and subsequently receiving a speedy and solemn burial. An outburst in which the killer explains his feeling of elation as he murdered the girl is intercut with scenes of two of the other teenagers having sex in the park. The violence and mental state of the killer is given definition by contrast with another sub-story in which Matt’s delinquent little brother stalks him with a stolen gun, burning for revenge because Matt punched him. These devices do their jobs, but they don’t feel quite organic to the story and, since they don’t tell us much that we don’t already know, they feel contrived.
But one such device works beautifully, largely because of Dennis Hopper as Feck, a biker-come-pot dealer holed up in his filthy house. That’s probably the only reason anyone knows him, considering that he answers the door with “Check’s in the mail!” and a gun pointed at his visitor’s head, and lives with a blow up doll named Elly which he seems to think is a real person. He tells anyone who will listen the gruesome details of how he killed his girlfriend long ago, with the enthusiasm of some kid describing a scene from a gory horror film.
As soon as Hopper gets on the screen, acting suspiciously like Frank from Blue Velvet (the two films came out the same year), threatening Crispin Glover with a gun and dancing with his blow up doll, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that River’s Edge was being strange for its own sake. But later, when John is in hiding in Feck’s house, the difference between the two killers, between two very different kinds of insanity, and most importantly the stunningly believable shift in Feck from a dangerous insane person to a sad old man and the movie’s only voice of reason, all of this is nothing short of virtuosic.
Edited with an oddly funereal pacing, shot mostly in gray, overcast light, and with subtle music by Jürgen Knieper (who scored Wings of Desire), River’s Edge has a muted, melancholy feel. Though this tone sometimes clashes with Hopper’s almost cartoonish antics, it very effectively counterpoints the audience’s expectations for how the characters should react in this situation. A murder in film is typically an occasion for terror or grief or mystery or resolution; here, it is an occasion for indifference: the characters go home, watch TV, and wonder why no one else has called the police yet. As is true with many great films, River’s Edge is in some sense so realistic it seems unbelievable for precisely this reason, because it so thoroughly refuses generic conventions that are so integrated into our thinking that we have come to confuse them with what might realistically happen.
Fully deserving the familiar idiom “Based on a true story” — and though it is based on events that transpired in the town (now little more than a giant strip mall) of Milpitas, California — River’s Edge includes no indication of its basis in fact. This is perhaps unfortunate, since the characters and story will undoubtedly strain belief for some who are unaware of this. But as odd as the story is and as some of the characters are, River’s Edge is a strong challenge to the audience, forcing us (if we go along with it) to recognize how movies skew our perceptions of human nature.