River’s Edge (1987): Tim Hunter’s Controversial Indie, Starring Dennis Hopper, Keanu Reeves, Crispin Glover

One of the most controversial indies of the 1980s was Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge, based on an actual incident in Northern California.  Though it divided critics and viewers, the movie went on to win Best Feature from the Spirit Awards (the Oscars for Indies).
The film addresses the alienation and moral vacancy among American kids growing up in drug-oriented culture and state of anomie. River’s Edge reflects 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.
The narrative begins at the river, here not the peaceful, pastoral place where small-town movie heroes flee to relax. Muddy, gray and ominous, the river is the scene of a crime. Tim (Joshua Miller), a young boy, stands on a bridge, slowly dropping his sister’s doll into the water. Across the bridge, another crime has taken place: Samson, nicknamed John (Daniel Roebeck), stares calmly at the nude body of his girlfriend Jamie, whom he has murdered on a whim. A link is immediately established between Jamie and the drowned doll: Which act is meaner, which has left more impact on its perpetrator
The scene soon becomes a touristic sight: The discovery of a dead body is not a shocking experience. Like Stand By Me, the film shows the fascination of seeing a dead body for the first time. John takes his friends to see Jamie’s body, and they all stand transfixed by the sight but no one moves or suggests calling the police. No one shows emotional reaction, not even outrage. John doesn’t apologize, just coolly explaining that Jamie “upset” him.
Layne (Crispin Glover), a high-strung, self-proclaimed leader, believes in protecting the group’s spirit at all costs. Perceiving loyalty as a sacred value, Layne is convinced that it’s their duty to cover up the murder. He reasons that since Jamie is already dead, nothing can be done about it, but John is alive and needs their help. Layne would use any argument to persuade his mates of the need for loyalty. “Why do you suppose the Russians are gearing up to take us over?” he charges, expressing general disgust with weak Americans.
Contrasted with Layne is Matt (Keanu Reaves), who finally goes to the police. Except for this act, Matt is no different from the others: he smokes dope, skips school, and even “steals” Layne’s girl. Matt is only slightly more sympathetic than the others. When the police ask, why it took him so long to report the crime, all he says is, “I don’t know.” “How do you feel about it” the cop inquires. “Nothing,” Matt says with disturbing honesty.  Director Tim Hunter has said he was intrigued by the moral paradox inherent in a situation in which the bad guy stands for loyalty and the good one is a stool pigeon betraying his friends.
Classmate Clarissa (Ione Skye) is also unable to filter her feelings. “I cried when that guy died in Brian’s Song” (a TV movie), she says, “You’d figure I’d at least be able to cry for someone I hung around with.” Times have changed and TV melodramas exert greater effect on their viewers than reality.
Matt’s 12-year-old brother, Tim, is desperate to join the latter’s group. The film draws a parallel between Tim, who “kills” his sister’s doll, and John, who murders his girl. Judging by their motivation–or reaction–there is no significant difference.
A parallel is also established between John and the town’s psychotic, Feck (Dennis Hopper), who keeps an inflatable doll as a reminder of the girl he has killed. Ironically, the only adult to possess any humanity is Feck, a crazed loner who shows regret and at least feels something; John is incapable of any feeling. “Did you love her?” asks Feck, only to be outraged by John’s nonchalant response, “She was O.K.”
In most teenage films, the group is cohesive, but here, friendships are not based on any intimate interaction or substance. What “River’s Edge” does share with other youth films is its attitude toward adult figures, who are presented as irresponsible and indifferent. The kids are left to their own devices, with no role models from the adult world. Matt’s father has disappeared, and his mother now lives with a brutish lover hated by the kids.
Though engaged in nursing, a service profession, the mother cares more about her dope than her children. The family doesn’t spend a single evening together; home is a place to be when there’s nothing else to do. The 1960s hippie, anti-Vietnam War generation is also ridiculed. Its representative schoolteacher tries to excite his apathetic students with stories of activism–“We took to the streets and made a difference”–but he’s perceived by his pupils as nor more than a caricature, an outdated figure.