River's Edge

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River's Edge
Theatrical release poster
Directed byTim Hunter
Written byNeal Jimenez
Produced bySarah Pillsbury
Midge Sanford
CinematographyFrederick Elmes
Edited byHoward E. Smith
Sonya Sones
Music byJürgen Knieper
Distributed byIsland Pictures
Release dates
  • September 10, 1986 (1986-09-10) (TIFF)
  • May 8, 1987 (1987-05-08) (U.S.)
Running time
99 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.7 million[1]
Box office$4.6 million[2]

River's Edge is a 1986 American crime drama film directed by Tim Hunter, written by Neal Jimenez, and starring Crispin Glover, Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye Leitch, 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. Jimenez partially based the 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 Island Pictures purchased it for distribution, theatrically releasing it in the United States in May 1987. Several critics praised the film's performances, and its subject matter resulted in several critics classifying it as a contemporary 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.[3][4] In a 2015 retrospective, Salon deemed it "the darkest teen film of all time."[5] The film has an original score by Jürgen Knieper, as well as a soundtrack featuring songs from various punk and metal bands, including Slayer, Fates Warning, Agent Orange, and the Wipers.


In Northern California, a preteen boy, Tim, throws a doll into a river. On the opposite bank, he sees a teenager, John, smoking a cigarette while sitting next to the nude corpse of his girlfriend, Jamie. Later, at a convenience store, Tim encounters John arguing with a clerk who will not sell him beer without ID. Tim returns home, where his older brother Matt and mother are searching for his little sister's doll. Matt's friend Layne arrives to pick him up, and the two drive to the home of Feck, a neurotic ex-biker and drug dealer, to obtain marijuana. On the way there, Layne recounts a party from the night before at which 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 says he killed Jamie. Thinking he's joking, Clarissa and Maggie leave for class. John brings Layne and Matt to see Jamie's body; Matt is disturbed, while Layne is focused on covering up the crime.

The group all plan to go see Jamie's body that evening, with Clarissa still assuming it is a practical joke. Layne's older brother, Mike, grudgingly drives them there in his truck, and they all see Jamie's body for themselves. Later that night, Clarissa calls Matt, but he is reluctant to talk to her. Meanwhile, Layne returns to the scene and pushes Jamie's body into the river. While driving afterward 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 out. Matt directs the police to the river, where they find Jamie's body washed up onshore. The police interrogate him, threatening to charge him as an accessory after the fact. Matt returns home and argues with his mother and her boyfriend. When he sees that Tim has defaced the grave marker for her "dead" lost doll that their sister made, Matt chases Tim down and hits him in the face. Tim goes to his friend Moko's house and they steal Moko's father's car to drive to Feck's so Tim can obtain a gun.

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 looking for the gun, but instead find his stash of marijuana, which they use to get stoned and then pass out in his house. Matt and Clarissa go to a park to talk, where they confide in each other about their conflicting feelings of grief and apathy over Jamie's murder. John and Feck go to the river's edge to drink beer, with Feck bringing along his blow-up doll, Ellie. Feck confesses to murdering his own girlfriend years earlier, despite having deeply loved her, whereupon John drunkenly begins to brag about killing Jamie, recounting his strangling of her with a relish that disturbs Feck. Matt and Clarissa have sex in the park nearby, then fall asleep. Layne drives around town in a panic, compulsively taking pills.

At dawn, after John falls asleep on the riverbank, Feck shoots him in the head. He returns home, where Tim and Moko knock him out and steal his gun. The police find Layne unconscious in his car and bring him in for questioning. At school, reporters interview Maggie and Tony, who seem dispassionate. During history class, Mr. Burkewaite, a teacher Clarissa respects, discusses morality, and asks Clarissa what Jamie meant to her in front of the class, but she cannot respond. Layne calls Feck's house asking where John is, and Feck tells him he's gone to the river. Before the conversation ends, the police break down Feck's door and arrest him. The teenagers go to the river together, where they see something floating in the river that resembles a corpse, but turns out to be Feck's doll, Ellie. Matt tells Layne he told the police that John murdered Jamie. Layne runs off down the riverbank and finds John's body. Tim arrives at the scene and points Feck's gun on Matt, threatening to kill him for hitting him the night before, but Matt dissuades him.

The police arrive and escort the teenagers and Tim away as the medical examiners remove John's body. In the hospital, Feck admits to killing John "because there was no hope for him," and confesses to murdering his girlfriend. Matt, Clarissa, Tony, and Maggie attend Jamie's funeral, where they show emotion at seeing her for the last time.



Film scholar Emanuel Levy writes 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."[4] But Levy writes that the film does share with its peers the manner in which it presents adult figures, as "irresponsible and indifferent."[6]



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.[7] Broussard bragged about the crime, showing the body to at least 13 different people; despite this, the crime went unreported for two days.[8] Screenwriter Neal Jimenez was taking screenwriting courses at the University of California, Los Angeles at the time of Conrad's murder, and said he based the script partially on the event.[3] He said, "the incident is merely the inspiration for the screenplay."[9] Others have noticed similarities between the film and the 1984 murder of Gary Lauwers by his friend Ricky Kasso.[10]

Hemdale Film Corporation expressed interest in Jimenez's script, and agreed to distribute the film with Tim Hunter directing.[3] 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."[3] The film was in pre-production for four months, with a final budget of $1.7 million.[3]


River's Edge was the first major film for many of its actors, including Roebuck and Skye.[3] Of casting 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."[3] Skye was cast in the film after a casting director saw a photo of her with her brother, Donovan Leitch, an aspiring actor at the time; she had no acting experience, and it was her first film.[3] Auditioning for the role of the brutish John, 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.[3] The casting director saw Danyi Deats in the waiting room, while she was waiting for her best friend who was auditioning for the same role.

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.[3] Sanford recalled 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."[3] Corey Haim was cast as Tim, but had to be replaced by Joshua John Miller after developing pneumonia during the first several days of filming.[3]


Hunter originally wanted to shoot the film in Los Angeles, but instead opted to shoot near Sacramento because it had natural locations more conducive to the screenplay.[3] The crew arrived to shoot scenes along the American River, but were forced to leave due to a major flood.[3] Hunter settled on shooting the film in Sunland-Tujunga, Los Angeles, a community in the foothills above Burbank. Filming took place from January to March 1986. Hunter said, "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."[3]


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."[3] The film was ultimately purchased for distribution by Island Pictures, which released it in the U.S. on May 8, 1987.[2]

Critical reception[edit]

River's Edge received largely positive reviews from critics.[11] It holds an 88% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 40 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, several critics considered it a contemporary horror film.[12]

Gene Siskel ranked River's Edge 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."[13] 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."[14] The New York Times's Janet Maslin called it "bitter and disturbing" and deemed the performances "natural and credible."[15] 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."[16] 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."[17] John Simon of the National Review called River's Edge "splendid".[18]

In a 2015 retrospective, Salon deemed River's Edge "the darkest teen film of all time."[5] 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."[19]


The film's soundtrack, released in 1987 by Enigma Records, features various thrash metal, reggae, and punk tracks.[20]

1 Hallows Eve– Lethal Tendencies 2 Slayer– Die By The Sword 3 Fates Warning– Kyrie Eleison 4 Slayer– Captor Of Sin 5 Slayer– Evil Has No Boundaries 6 Agent Orange (7)– Fire In The Rain 7 Slayer– Tormentor 8 Wipers– Let Me Know 9 Burning Spear– Happy Day (Previously Unreleased)

Home media[edit]

River's Edge was released on DVD on January 23, 2001, by MGM Home Entertainment in its "Avant-Garde Cinema" series.[21] A Blu-ray was released by Kino Lorber on January 13, 2015.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Levy 1999, p. 523.
  2. ^ a b "River's Edge". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 9, 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Gilligan, Matt (May 9, 2017). "An Oral History of 'River's Edge,' 1987's Most Polarizing Teen Film". Vice. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  4. ^ a b Levy 1999, p. 286.
  5. ^ a b Spitz, Marc (January 23, 2015). ""River's Edge": The darkest teen film of all time". Salon. Retrieved January 9, 2018.
  6. ^ Levy 1999, p. 287.
  7. ^ Klinger, Karen. "A Town Looks at a Murder: Many Could Share the Blame". Detroit Free Press. July 25, 1982.
  8. ^ "Law: Age of Accountability". Time. December 14, 1981. Archived from the original on December 14, 2008. Retrieved December 28, 2017.
  9. ^ Villagran, Nora. "'River's' Writer: 'I Made It Up' Filmmakers Say Movie Depicts a Rootless Post-Watergate World". San Jose Mercury News. May 22, 1987.
  10. ^ "Kids in the Dark". DavidBreskin.com. October 2013. Retrieved January 24, 2016.
  11. ^ Pfeil 1990, p. 192.
  12. ^ Harrison, Margot (1987). "Loving the Bomb: Film Criticism and the New Nihilism". The Harvard Advocate. Advocate House (Harvard University). 119–21: 29–32.
  13. ^ Ebert, Roger (May 29, 1987). "River's Edge". Retrieved December 28, 2017.
  14. ^ Wilmington, Michael (May 8, 1987). "Movie Review : A Twisted Legacy In 'River's Edge'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 22, 2017.
  15. ^ Maslin, Janet (May 8, 1987). "FILM: 'River's Edge'". The New York Times. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  16. ^ Canby, Vincent (June 14, 1987). "FILM VIEW; INTO THE DARK HEARTLAND". The New York Times. Retrieved December 27, 2017.
  17. ^ Ansen, David (June 1, 1987). "River's Edge". Newsweek. p. 69.
  18. ^ Simon, John (2005). John Simon on Film: Criticism 1982-2001. Applause Books. p. 326.
  19. ^ Newman, Kim (2011). Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s (Revised ed.). A&C Black. pp. 138–9. ISBN 978-1-408-80503-9.
  20. ^ River's Edge Soundtrack (CD). Enigma Records. 1987. {{cite AV media}}: |format= requires |url= (help)
  21. ^ "River's Edge DVD". Amazon. Retrieved January 10, 2018.
  22. ^ "River's Edge Blu-ray". Blu-ray.com. Retrieved January 9, 2018.

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Lebeau, Vicky (1991). "'You're My Friend': River's Edge and Social Spectatorship". Camera Obscura. 25–6: 251–72.

External links[edit]