River’s Edge (1987) was produced on a budget of $1.8 million by the independent producing team of Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury, who were also responsible for John Sayles’s Eight Men Out (1988) and Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985). Based on a true incident in California in which a group of teenagers covered up a classmate’s murder, River’s Edge caused considerable controversy at the time of its release. Rather than presenting the typical Hollywood tale of juvenile waywardness and redemption, River’s Edge situates the incident within its wider social context of dysfunctional suburban families, drugs and alcohol, and depersonalized, mediated experience. The film brought critical success to both its director, Tim Hunter, and screenwriter, Neal Jimenez, including Indie Spirit Awards for best feature and best screenplay, but the film’s bleak view did little to enhance either of their careers within the industry.
Neal Jimenez’s screenplay is in many ways even darker than Tim Hunter’s actual film, probably because Crispin Glover’s over-the-top performance adds an additional comedic element. Otherwise Hunter’s film remains remarkably faithful to Jimenez’s script. It is not surprising that every major studio initially passed on such depressing material. Once Sanford and Pillsbury optioned the script, they resubmitted it again to the studios with virtually the same response until Hemdale finally agreed to finance the project. Distribution of River’s Edge proved another formidable obstacle. Island Pictures bought the theatrical rights only after the film played successfully at festivals. Surprisingly strong box-office results in New York and Los Angles led to expanded theatrical distribution in thirty cities, proving that industry experts had been wrong. There turned out to be a market for such a picture after all, mostly among college students and a younger audience. The film has become something of a teen classic subsequently. Roger Ebert has called it “the best analytical film about a crime since The Onion Field and In Cold Blood.”
River’s Edge weaves the interlocking stories of three different murderers – Tim, Samson (John), and Feck – which span different generations. The main plotline focuses on Samson’s murder of Jamie, as well as Layne’s (Crispin Glover) bravado attempt to cover it up, but the film has two other subplots involving Tim and Feck. Feck (Dennis Hopper) represents the older ’60s generation. His murder of a woman stemmed from love, and his elimination of Samson results from a kind of moral necessity. Samson kills for the sense of power and aliveness it gives him, while Tim is perhaps the most frightening of all because his acts are seemingly without motivation. He represents the new breed of killer. In that sense, River’s Edge is a highly prophetic film. Two decades later, when teens and sub-teens routinely use their classmates for mass target practice, we are now probably a bit surprised that Samson didn’t take out the rest of his friends as well.
River’s Edge mixes both conventional and unconventional elements. The film uses a three-act dramatic structure, but its most significant events – turning points – actually happen off-screen. The first turning point would be when Matt (Keanu Reeves) squeals to the police, but we never see him make the phone call. While Layne and the others view the body at the river, the camera fixes on a reflective Matt fidgeting in class, and later at home he sits holding the phone. Both instances suggest that Matt is contemplating calling the authorities, but at this point neither is conclusive enough to serve as a turning point. We only know that someone has called the police when Layne and Samson see the squad cars in front of Samson’s house. This does not happen until 36 minutes into the film. Right after that, Matt leads the police to the crime scene. During Officer Bennett’s interrogation, Matt alludes to the fact that he was the one who reported the crime. This clearly reveals a change in the protagonist’s motivation. Matt, however, is too much of a pothead to function as your typical goal-driven protagonist. This is probably why he has little to do with the second reversal.
The second turning point occurs when Feck shoots Samson at 75 minutes. This important event is again not played for its full dramatic effect, but happens off-screen. Feck picks up the gun and Matt hears a shot in the night. The information is conveyed associatively. We do not know for sure that Samson is dead until Layne finds his body, an event which functions as the film’s climax. Another way to view this would be to see Feck’s shooting of Samson as the climax of this subplot, just as the family subplot involving Tim and Matt peaks toward the film’s end when Tim nearly shoots his older brother. Either way, excluding credits, the first act would be 36 minutes long, the second act 39 minutes, and the third is the shortest at 21 minutes.
There are other unconventional aspects, which have to do with character. Matt is the protagonist, Layne functions as his antagonist or opposition (with Tim playing that role in the family subplot), and Clarissa serves as the romance figure in the story. Typically, the protagonist and romance character would be at cross purposes, especially during Act Two. In terms of motivation, Matt’s romance with Clarissa would serve to alter his goals – his love for her would be the factor that causes him to change – but that is clearly not the case here. Matt decides on his own to report Samson– his decision has nothing to do with Clarissa.
In conventional dramatic terms, Layne would pose more of a threat to Matt, but Matt actually defies Layne without the risk of any consequence. Layne turns out to be more posture than substance. Once Matt finks on Samson, there is not much else at stake for him, other than stealing Layne’s girlfriend, Clarissa. This turns out to be rather easy to do once Layne dumps her out of his car, especially because Layne more or less also invites Matt to go with her. On some level, it is not actually Layne who serves as Matt’s antagonist. Layne simply personifies the mores of the teenage group, in which friendship matters above all else, including human decency and the law. By snitching on Samson, Matt risks ostracism from his friends. As with most teenagers, this is what he fears the most. Clarissa underscores this point by asking Matt, “Weren’t you scared of people finding out?”
River’s Edge has a complicated plot structure as well as richly-drawn characters. Matt may be a complete stoner, but he is a sensitive one. The design on the back of his jacket – a peace symbol combined with a skull – is wonderfully emblematic of his ambivalence, and it is part of his youthful naiveté that he thinks he can balance such contradictions. Jamie’s murder changes all that because the ensuing situation forces Matt to choose between Eros and Thanatos. Not only does Matt rebel against Layne’s attempt at control – which mirrors Samson’s murderous impulses – but he’s the only one who seems to be able to feel anything for Jamie. This is evident when Matt confesses to Clarissa that the reason he informed on Samson is because the look on her face continues to haunt him. Matt is also kind to his little sister and protective of her when Tim drowns her doll, Missy, and desecrates Missy’s grave. He is also repulsed by Tim and Moko’s target practice on defenseless crawfish in a water bucket. Matt also complains to his mother about letting Tim hang out with Moko. Although Matt throttles Tim, he is actually the only one who cares enough about Tim to discipline him. His mother’s boyfriend, Jim, is hardly a role model. Jim talks about discipline, but he lacks the moral authority to impose it.
All of the kids in River’s Edge have a mediated view of the world, a point that is underscored by the television-like image of the river that opens the film. When the teenagers hang outside school and fantasize about splitting for Portland, Tony’s reference is to Easy Rider. Layne, in particular, seizes upon Samson’s murder of Jamie as if it is a movie or television plot. As Samson and Matt and Layne drive back from viewing Jamie’s body for the first time, Layne turns it into a Hollywood pitch: “It’s like some fucking movie, you know? Friends since the second grade, fuckin’ like this – (he proudly raises crossed fingers to demonstrate the unity of their friendship) – and one of us gets himself in potentially big trouble, and now we’ve got to deal with it. We’ve got to test our loyalty, against all odds. It’s kind of exciting. I feel like Chuck Norris, you know?” As Layne and Matt drive around later and discuss who might have finked on Samson, Layne tells him they are a team and compares them to Starsky and Hutch. And when Clarissa argues with Layne for calling her a bitch, he tells her that “in a time like this, where every fucking second counts, a man can’t waste his time choosing words.” Clarissa responds, “What is this, Mission Impossible?” as Matt hums the theme song from the back seat. Clarissa also complains to Matt that she feels terrible for not crying over Jamie like she did for the guy in Brian’s Song, the TV movie about the star football player who died of cancer.
The characters in River’s Edge have a hard time differentiating between what is real and what isn’t. Feck, for instance, treats his rubber sex doll, Ellie, as a substitute person. This parallels Kim’s doll, Missy, whose drowning represents a certain emotional reality for the child. But Feck is an adult, not a child – he’s expected to be able to negotiate the difference. And, in fact, he does when he’s interrogated by Samson as to whether he’s a psycho. Feck responds defensively, “No. I’m normal. She’s a doll. I know that.” On the other hand, Samson’s aunt has gone completely over the edge and lives in the world of Dr. Seuss’ The Cat and the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham.
The teenagers have similar problems with determining what’s real. Layne’s response to Jamie’s naked corpse is to poke her body with a stick. Dumbfounded, he says, “This is unreal. Completely unreal.” Samson also struggles for control over reality, which is why he murders Jamie. He tells Feck: “I had total control of her. It all felt so real, so . . . real. She was dead there in front of me, and I felt so fucking alive.” And the crisis involving Jamie and Samson provokes Layne to fabricate his bond of friendship with Samson, but Samson later tells Feck: “Layne was never a friend anyway. He doesn’t know me.” At the end of the film, Matt levels with Layne about Samson: “I fucking know you, Layne. You get these ideas in your head, and you don’t think, and this idea – helping Samson out – it’s not a good idea.” But it is also interesting that Layne, who has trouble distinguishing between reality and illusion, justifies his concern for Samson over Jamie to Clarissa by an argument based on the distinction between the animate and inanimate This occurs when Layne throws Clarissa out of his car for suggesting she ought to inform the cops about Samson’s whereabouts. She pokes a hole in Layne’s specious reasoning by responding: “And who’s next on his list.”
Of course, there’s also an element of misogyny in Layne. Not only does he call Clarissa a stupid bitch, but earlier at Feck’s door, when Feck warns Layne and Matt that the reason he killed a woman was that she had it coming, Layne humors him: “Right Feck. Women are evil. You had to kill her.” Yet Layne, despite his flaws, is a wonderfully wacky antagonist who, in many ways, overshadows Matt in terms of character interest. Perpetually decked out in death-rocker black leather, he is the kind of obsessional loser who will find a place for himself eventually in the ultraconservative right wing. At one point, as Layne and Samson are driving around, he attempts to give Samson an inspirational lift: “It’s people like you that are sending this country down the tubes, you know? No sense of pride, no sense of loyalty, no sense of nothing. Why do you think there are so many fucking welfare cases in this country? Why do you think Russia’s gearing up to kick our ass?” Layne attempts to turn friendship into his ultimate value. For him, it takes precedence over the law. But, like his political analysis, it is not based on honest feeling, but rather something that he has picked up from the media.
Clarissa probably has the best insight into his character. When she gets together with Matt, she quickly deflates Layne’s bravado image by suggesting he has problems with alcohol abuse and that “They could make a movie out of him.” This is the same guy who, early in the film, makes a display of pinching Clarissa’s ass in front of his friends. When Layne discovers Samson’s body, he lets out a pathetic moan, and assumes a foetal position in front of the body. His line – “They fucking killed him”– reeks of a right-wing paranoid conspiracy. He’s becomes completely deflated and pathetic at the end. In our last image of him, he sprawls face down on a large rock. He is also conspicuously absent at the funeral. Although we don’t see him being arrested, we can assume he’s been being held as an accessory to Samson’s crime.
The other major characters, Samson and Feck, present a striking contrast, and part of the script’s brilliance is to put these two psychos together and allow them to interact. We know only the basics about Samson. His has no parents. His mother’s death is an apparent sore point – he found her dead in the shower – which suggests that she probably committed suicide. In any event, he lives with his crazy aunt to whom he reads children’s books by Dr. Seuss. The original explanation of why he kills Jamie is that she said something about his dead mother, but Samson later reveals his motive to Feck. He kills because it gives him a sense of power and makes him feel real. One other aspect of his character is only hinted at, and that has to do with the sexual component to his killing, since Jamie is fully clothed in Samson’s murder flashback, but naked when we first see her. When Clarissa suggests this to Layne when they’re driving around, Layne denies Samson’s a “sex maniac,” but then kicks her out of his car shortly afterward.
Samson does little to help himself throughout the film. He cannot even spare the energy to help Layne dispose of the body. There is also a suggestion that Samson was drunk when he killed her. Samson, as his name implies, is a lumbering giant, who uses drugs and alcohol in an attempt to numb his repressed rage. Whereas Feck only wastes dudes in self-defense, Samson has a different mode of operation. He tells Feck: “Me, I get in a fight, I go crazy. Everything goes black, and I fuckin’ explode, you know? Like it’s the end of the world, and who cares if the guy fucking wastes me, I’m gonna waste him. The world’s gonna blow up anyway, so I better at least keep my pride.”
Samson becomes very aggressive when he’s around Feck. Numerous times he seems to challenge the older biker. He needles him about the doll and brings in the cat against Feck’s wishes. Later he pretends to force Ellie to perform oral sex, another parallel in terms of his character. Samson also tries to badger Feck into shooting off his gun, while Feck insists he doesn’t believe in shooting a gun without a reason. Feck has managed to evade the law for twenty years, but Samson hasn’t the will or desire to keep going; only Layne has delusions of saving him. Samson already recognizes he’s a dead man and that they are going to fry him for committing such a brutal murder.
None of the adults in River’s Edge turn out to be terribly good role models. Madeleine (Matt and Tim’s mother) is a pothead living with her boyfriend. The kids’ real father has split and Madeleine at one point cries that “they’re all accidents, anyway.” Clarissa’s parents are portrayed as disembodied voices. We never see Layne’s parents at all. Tony’s father appears to be a psycho when he fires a shotgun at Layne and Matt when they show up at this house. Samson’s mother probably committed suicide, while Aunto seems certifiably mad. After Clarissa leaves Matt to go to class and he kids her about having the hots for Burkewaite, she tells him that she “respects” him. Matt answers in mock disbelief, “You respect an adult? I really do need to get stoned.” Clarissa’s respect is especially misguided because Burkewaite turns out to be another demagogue like Layne. He waxes nostalgic about knocking pigs on their asses, and later espouses vigilantism as the proper response to Samson.
Feck, for all his craziness, is the only sympathetic adult character. He provides the moral center to the film. A pot-smoking rebel rouser, who brags he “ate so much pussy back then my beard looked like a glazed donut,” Feck is also the only one who seems to feel real compassion for Samson and his fate. When Samson insists that “they’re gonna fry me for sure,” Feck reminds him that Layne is trying to help out. But Samson has a forceful comeback: “What’s he gonna do? Send me off to Portland? Hide me out in some dark room for twenty years so I can end up like you, Feck? You think I want that?” Feck answers: “No. You don’t.” Feck may be slightly crazy and pot may help to numb his pain, but Feck knows full well the price of murder. He articulates this to Samson early on: “You kill a person and they stick after you like ghosts. They can’t let you forget. They won’t believe you when you say you’re sorry. They want you to pay somehow.”
Feck is a murderer, but he claims to have at least loved his victim. Later at the riverbank, he not only refuses to fire his gun without reason, but for sentimental reasons as well. The gun with which he kills Samson is the same gun he used in the murder. Feck’s shooting of Samson is double-edged. On one level, he does it because Samson is a psychotic murderer – as Samson puts it, “what other excuse do I have” – who kills for the power and sense of aliveness it gives him. Feck explains his own motivation: “. . . because there was no hope for him, no hope at all. He didn’t love her. He never felt a thing. At least I loved her. At least I cared.” But Feck’s murder of Samson is also an act of compassion.
Throughout River’s Edge, the teenagers express a fatalistic awareness of death and/or annihilation, which justifies their party-while-you-can, nihilistic behavior. Yet Feck clearly has the greatest sense of life’s absurdity. This is manifest in the scene where Feck and Samson discuss how he lost his leg:
SAMSON: That when you lost your leg?
FECK: Yeah. Motorcycle accident.
FECK: The rest of the gang ditched me, kept on riding. My leg was in the street. I remember lying there in the gutter, all bleeding and shaking, staring at my leg, next to the beer can, and I remember thinking: that’s my leg. I wonder if there’s any beer in that can?
FECK: I also thought: Maybe they can sew it back on, but then the ambulance came, ran right over it.
SAMSON: Wasted that leg.
FECK: But who needed it. I got another one, right?
Jimenez has a tremendous facility with language as well as an ability to write both realistic and visually-rich dialogue. As has already been pointed out, Jimenez deliberately chooses not to show certain important dramatic moments and situations, such as Matt’s phone call or Feck’s killing of Samson. He also creates an anti-dramatic climax to the family subplot between Matt and Tim. Logically, Tim ought to pull the trigger, especially considering how he encourages Moko to beat Feck over the head with the numbchucks. But Jimenez’s decision to withhold certain dramatic elements is actually a deliberate stylistic device in River’s Edge.
Jimenez is perfectly capable of creating drama, as is evident in certain highly dramatic individual scenes in River’s Edge that bristle with tension. A great example of Jimenez’s ability to create such scenes is Officer Bennett’s interrogation of Matt. The scene is emotionally charged for a simple reason. To Bennett, Matt is the prime suspect. But when Bennett attempts to treat him like a suspect, Matt reacts with the righteous indignation of the wrongly accused. In informing the police about Jamie’s body, Matt has placed himself in a vulnerable situation vis-à-vis his teenage school friends. Bennett uses his veiled accusations as a way of pricking Matt’s most vulnerable sore spots. Like any interrogator, Bennett keeps pushing Matt’s buttons until Matt explodes finally at the attempt to turn him into the reprehensible figure of a murderer or accomplice.
Virtually every scene involving Matt and his mother’s boyfriend, Jim, also escalates quickly into dramatic conflict. After Madeleine and Matt get back from the police station, Jim is there to greet them. It doesn’t take much to set off their Oedipally-charged rivalry, but Jim relishes the notion that Matt may have played a part in Jamie’s murder. And Matt once again gets blame rather than credit for his actions, which reinforces his indignation and fuels his anger. But Jim also hits Matt at another point of vulnerability, since Matt actually does know where Samson is hiding out. As Matt stalks off, Matt yells after Jim: “Mother-fucker! Food-eater!” The literalness of the lines add a comic touch to the confrontation. Earlier when Matt takes his BB gun back from Tim for shooting crawfish, Tim screams after him: “Pothead fuckbrain.” This line is also funny, mostly for the unintended self-hatred it implies.
Jiminez and Hunter show a firm grasp of dramatic conventions throughout River’s Edge, but the drama, as I have argued, is subverted or down played at key moments, including at the film’s understated ending. After Clarissa and Matt view the body, they file into the first-row pew. Matt takes Clarissa’s hand – that’s the extent of it. The camera winds up framing Jamie in her casket. Matt has been spared death from Tim, the brothers have settled temporarily, and Matt and Clarissa attend the funeral together, with Layne no longer in the way. But the ending refuses to provide us with the false security that everything will be okay now for these disaffected young people. In fact, there is an earlier scene, that deliberately parodies such Hollywood clichés. After Matt and Clarissa have made love for the first time, Matt says, “So now we get married, right?” Clarissa answers, “No. Let’s get stoned instead.” The integrity of River’s Edge is precisely its grim realistic picture of suburban teenage life, as well as Jimenez and Hunter’s steadfast refusal to sugarcoat it for greater mass consumption.