Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Tim Hunter|
|Written by||Neal Jimenez|
|Music by||Jürgen Knieper|
Howard E. Smith|
|Distributed by||Island Pictures|
|Box office||$4.6 million|
River's Edge is a 1986 American independent crime film directed by Tim Hunter, written by Neal Jimenez, and starring Crispin Glover, Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, Daniel Roebuck, and Dennis Hopper. It follows a group of teenagers in a Northern California town who are forced to deal with their friend's murder of his girlfriend, and the subsequent disposal of her body. Screenwriter Jimenez partially based the film's script on the 1981 murder of Marcy Renee Conrad in Milpitas, California.
Shot in Los Angeles in 1986, the film premiered that year at the Toronto International Film Festival before being purchased for distribution by Island Pictures, who gave the film a theatrical release in the United States in May 1987. Several critics praised the film's performances, and its subject matter resulted in it being classified by several critics as a contemporary-day horror film. It was awarded Best Picture at the 1986 Independent Spirit Awards.
Contemporary film scholars have noted River's Edge as an example of the "killer kid" film, as well as one of the most polarizing youth-oriented films of the 1980s. In a 2015 retrospective, Salon deemed it "the darkest teen film of all time." The film features an original score by Jürgen Knieper, as well as a soundtrack featuring songs from various punk and metal bands, including Slayer, Agent Orange, and the Wipers.
In Northern California, an adolescent boy, Tim, throws a doll into a river. On the opposite bank, he sees teenager John smoking a cigarette; next to him is the nude corpse of his girlfriend, Jamie. Later at a convenience store, Tim encounters John arguing with the clerk over buying beer. Tim returns home where his brother Matt and mother are searching for his little sister's doll. Layne arrives and picks up Matt, and the two drive to the home of Feck, a neurotic ex-biker and drug dealer, to buy marijuana. On the car ride there, Layne recounts a party from the night before where John and Jamie were arguing. At school, Layne and Matt smoke with their friends Clarissa, Maggie, and Tony. Matt talks about wanting to run away to Portland, which Clarissa dismisses. John arrives, and mentions that he killed Jamie. Clarissa and Maggie think he's joking, and leave for class. He brings Layne and Matt to view her body; Matt is disturbed, while Layne is singularly concentrated on covering up the crime.
The group all plan to go see Jamie's body that evening, which Clarissa assumes is a practical joke. An older acquaintance, Mike, agrees to drive them in his truck, and they each see Jamie's body for themselves. Later that night, Clarissa calls Matt, but he is reluctant to talk to her. Meanwhile, Layne goes back to the scene and pushes Jamie's body into the river. Later, while driving with John, he notices police cars near John's house. Layne panics, but John remains calm. They drive to Feck's house, and Layne leaves John there to hide. Meanwhile, Matt directs police to the river, where they find Jamie's body washed up on the shore. Matt is subsequently interrogated by police, who threaten to charge him with being an accessory after the fact. Matt returns home and argues with his mother and her boyfriend, and then gets into a fight with Tim, hitting him in the face. After, Tim and his friend Moko steal Moko's father's car to drive to Feck's.
In the middle of the night, Layne, Clarissa and Matt drive to Tony's house, but Tony's father chases them off with a shotgun. Layne argues with Clarissa and kicks her out of his car. Matt gets out and walks with her. They stop at a convenience store and run into John and Feck. Tim and Moko break into Feck's house in search of a gun, but find his stash of marijuana instead; they each get stoned and pass out in his house. Matt and Clarissa go to a park to talk, where they confide their mutual apathy over Jamie's murder. Meanwhile, John and Feck have gone to the river's edge to drink beer. Feck discusses a murder he committed years prior of his own girlfriend, and John drunkenly begins to brag about killing Jamie, recounting his strangling her to death with relish. Matt and Clarissa have sex in the park nearby before falling asleep, while Layne drives around town in a panic, compulsively taking pills.
At dawn, John falls asleep on the river bank, and Feck shoots him in the head. He returns to his home, where Tim and Moko accost him and steal his gun. Police find Layne unconscious in his car, and bring him in for questioning. At school, news reporters interview Maggie and Tony, who seem dispassionate. During history class, the teacher, Mr. Burkewaite, discusses morality, and asks Clarissa what Jamie meant to her in front of the class; she doesn't respond. Layne calls Feck's house asking where John is, and Feck tells him he's gone to the river; in the middle of the phone call, police break down Feck's door. The group of teenagers go to the river together, and Layne finds John's body nearby. Tim arrives at the scene with Feck's gun and threatens to kill Matt for hitting him the night before, but Matt talks him out of it.
Police arrive and escort the teenagers away as medical examiners remove John's body. In the hospital, Feck admits to killing John "because there was no hope for him," and confesses to his girlfriend's murder from years prior. Later, at Jamie' funeral, each of the teenagers show emotion during the wake.
- Crispin Glover as Layne
- Keanu Reeves as Matt
- Ione Skye as Clarissa (as Ione Skye Leitch)
- Daniel Roebuck as Samson "John" Tollet
- Dennis Hopper as Feck
- Joshua John Miller as Tim
- Roxana Zal as Maggie
- Josh Richman as Tony
- Phillip Brock as Mike
- Tom Bower as Det. Bennett
- Constance Forslund as Madeleine
- Leo Rossi as Jim
- Jim Metzler as Mr. Burkewaite
- Taylor Negron as Checker
- Danyi Deats as Jamie
- Tammy Smith as Kim
- Christopher Peters as Tom
Film scholar Emanuel Levy notes that the film "addresses the alienation and moral vacancy among American kids growing up in a drug-oriented, valueless culture. River's Edge has the disturbing quality of a collective fear—the cherished, eagerly awaited adolescence is presented as confusing and vacuous. Unlike most 1980s teenage sex comedies, this film doesn't glamorize youth, instead depicting it as a bleak, aimless coming of age, a time of boredom, stupor, and waste." However, Levy writes that the film does share in common with its peers the manner in which it presents adult figures, as "irresponsible and indifferent."
While the screenplay is fiction, it draws from the November 3, 1981, murder of Marcy Renee Conrad, who was raped and strangled by Anthony Jacques Broussard in Milpitas, California. Others have noticed similarities between the film and the 1984 murder of Gary Lauwers by his friend, Ricky Kasso. Broussard bragged about the crime, showing the body to at least thirteen different people; despite this, the crime went unreported for two days. Screenwriter Neal Jimenez was taking screenwriting courses at the University of California, Los Angeles at the time of Conrad's murder, and admitted to basing the script partially on the event. Jimenez said "that the incident is merely the inspiration for the screenplay."
Hemdale Film Corporation expressed interest in Jimenez's script, and agreed to distribute the film with Tim Hunter directing. Producer Midge Sanford recalled: "Hemdale were a small company that made some very good movies, like Salvador and Hoosiers. They really responded to the script and said they would finance it with Tim as the director." The film was in pre-production for four months, with a final budget of $1.7 million.
River's Edge was the first major film for many of its actors, including Daniel Roebuck and Ione Skye. On casting Keanu Reeves, casting director Carrie Frazier recalled: "He walked in the door, and I went, "Oh my god, this is my guy!" It was just because of the way he held his body—his shoes were untied, and what he was wearing looked like a young person growing into being a man. I was over the moon about him." Ione Skye was cast in the film after a casting director saw a photo of her with her brother, Donovan Leitch, who was an aspiring actor at the time; she had no acting experience, and it was her first film. Auditioning for the role of the brutish Samson, Daniel Roebuck arrived at his audition in full-costume with his hair slicked back with K-Y Jelly, and two beer cans in his front pockets.
For the part of Feck, director Hunter had wanted John Lithgow; the part was also offered to Harry Dean Stanton, who declined, and passed the script on to his friend, Dennis Hopper, who was cast. Sanford recalled Crispin Glover had auditioned "with a wig and an outrageous take on the part. He was so out there that Sarah and I were a little nervous about what he was doing. But we trusted him and felt like it would work out in the end." Corey Haim was cast in the part of Tim, but had to be replaced by Joshua John Miller after developing pneumonia during the first several days of filming.
Director Hunter had originally wanted to shoot the film in Los Angeles, but instead opted to shoot near Sacramento due to it having natural locations more conducive to the screenplay. The crew arrived to shoot scenes along the American River, but were forced to leave due to a major flood. Hunter settled on shooting the film in Sunland-Tujunga, Los Angeles, a community in the foothills above Burbank. Hunter stated: "It was an area where people with tuberculosis could come to sanatoriums for the clean air. By the time we shot River's Edge, it had become a smog pocket—but it was full of river rock houses that gave it a "land that time forgot" feeling."
The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, 1986. Producer Midge Sanford recalled the screening leaving the audience divided: "Some executives from a small distribution company wouldn't look at us [after a festival screening]. People either embraced it or were very put off by it. It didn't get picked up right away." The film was ultimately purchased for distribution by Island Pictures, who released the film in the United States on May 8, 1987.
River's Edge received largely positive reviews from critics. It holds an 87% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 38 reviews with the consensus: "A harrowing tale of aimless youth, River's Edge generates considerable tension and urgency thanks to strong performances from a stellar cast including Crispin Glover, Keanu Reeves and Ione Skye." At the time of its release, the film was noted by several critics as being a contemporary-day horror film.
Gene Siskel ranked River's Edge as the seventh best film of 1987, while Roger Ebert awarded the film three-and-a-half out of four stars, calling it "the best analytical film about a crime since The Onion Field and In Cold Blood." Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times called the film "a contemporary horror story about teen-agers, but it contains no slasher scenes or serial homicides. Its monsters are all too real." The New York Times's Janet Maslin called the film "bitter and disturbing" and deemed the performances "natural and credible." Vincent Canby, also of The New York Times, named the film "the year's most riveting, most frightening horror film, even if doesn't really belong in the same category with any acknowledged classics of the genre. Metaphysics has nothing to do with River's Edge, though, like Dracula, it's a tale of the undead." David Ansen of Newsweek called the film "the scariest vision of youth since the alarming Brazilian movie Pixote... River's Edge pitches the audience inside this nightmare world of affectless middle-class kids and lets us watch them wallow their way through moral dilemmas they can only half articulate."
In a 2015 retrospective, Salon deemed River's Edge "the darkest teen film of all time." Film historian Kim Newman named the film "the definitive killer kid movie... Moral without moralizing, blackly comic without tastelessness, [and] acutely tuned in to the way dead-end teens talk."
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