More Than Meets The Mogwai

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

These are the Damned: RIVER'S EDGE (Tim Hunter, 1986)



"I'm not being smart
Or trying to be cold on my part
And I'm not gonna wear my heart on my sleeve
But you know people get all emotional
And sometimes, man, they just dont act rational
They think they're just on TV"

--Lou Reed, "Street Hassle"

As far as films centering on abandoned, desiccated youth, RIVER’S EDGE is unique in its objective approach to its teenaged protagonists. There’s not a judgment or an edict passed down by director Tim Hunter, and he generally lets the situation of a murdered high school girl and the ensuing desertion of her fast-decomposing corpse play out amongst a conniving, gossipy, and deeply troubled riff-raff clique. As real life casts a pallor over the loosely based-on-a-true-story narrative, parents are either substance abusers (much like their kids) or can’t seem to find time away from work; they’re left in the margins, allowing for their disturbed offspring to gallivant around their coastal town, ambling for beer and free marijuana from the town loony/fugitive (Dennis Hopper).

In more than a few broad strokes, the film could be said to resemble David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET or “Twin Peaks” (or is it they that resemble RIVER’S EDGE?) for the way there’s an affected surrealistic rendering in one-off shots and off-kilter dialogue (and that’s not to mention the Hopper factor, who, in fact, I prefer here) -- there’s Hopper waltzing with a blonde-haired, blow-up doll; Hopper asking if there are any “Bud in Bottles” to the convenience store clerk (Taylor Negron) after his fellow murderer/fugitive double (Daniel Roebuck) has held up the place; Crispin Glover’s spastic performance as the leader in the clique, an avowed speed freak who unexpectedly takes it upon himself to shield the murderer from the cops, torments their shared friends (Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, Josh Richman, Roxana Zal) in order to ensure they don't tattle to the cops in the interim before he Figures It All Out.

Reeves and Skye are the conscience of the film, steadily acclimatizing to a newfound relationship bounded by the uneasy connection found in their mutual disturbance in keeping the murder of a friend silent. It’s a problem with modern society, Hunter argues, but there’s not a finger pointed (all of the “society is rundown, ravaged, and disintegrating morally” arguments are otherwise scoffed at by the scene featuring a nerdish student addressing his radically progressive teacher, who dissects the social-political dimensions of a presumably close acquaintance’s death as if it’s an op-ed piece for “The New York Times”) and they’re not all bad apples, even if appearances are to the contrary.


The pea to the paroxysmal Glover's pod is the younger Joshua John Miller, brother to Reeves in the film, but more of a cosmic kin to the former; his exaggerated gait, his unhurried line delivery, and his babyish features make his precociousness into a petty life of crime worth considering if he’s beyond redemption or not (the film’s not telling: after Reeves diffuses an internal combustion inside Miller by wrestling a revolver away from him, Hunter doesn’t feature him in any close-shots and he doesn’t say another line of dialogue, his group shots – as part of the crowd – almost make it seem as if he’s now silently assimilated with everybody else by this unheralded tragedy).

Hunter cleverly inverts certain tropes of classical Hollywood (particularly Nicholas Ray’s seminal REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE), subtly replacing the underlying motive and gestures of its youth; this is not an accidental death caused by a “chicken run”, but an honest-to-goodness homicide that deserves to be brought to the cops as soon as possible. There is no moral quandary presented here, just a couple of teens weaned off of action films and '70s cop shows who misinterpret the situation as one (Glover's character makes comparisons of hiding the murderer to being like an episode of "Starsky and Hutch" and, earlier on, that he "feels like Chuck Norris"). There's an empowerment issue at work here, and as long as the killing is not reported, these kids get to play make-believe.
The music, by Wim Wenders’ regular composer Jürgen Knieper, is bombastic and large, insularly Germanic, stuffy, but gives the film an important counterpoint or counterweight to the metal (mostly Slayer, a pitch-perfect reference) listened to by almost everybody else.

Dennis Hopper (complete with Indian Motorcycle rusted placard on the wall) plays a shadow of his former EASY RIDER, a cousin of the confused stance put forth by the disadvantaged in the film, but as he considers the murder that has caused the abuzz, his ultimate verdict is that his is more genuine because of “the love” held for the woman he killed, an odd, disquieting thing to say, but a truthful, useful key to the stunted emotionality present at any given moment in the teenagers of RIVER’S EDGE.

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