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In River's Edge, a clique of disaffected kids in small town '80s California don't know how to react when one of their peers is coldly murdered by another in their group. As the gravity of the situation dawns on them, their reactions range from a total freakout to wondering why the death of a TV character made them cry - where an actual death involving their close friend failed to connect.
Kino Lorber's Studio Classics Blu Ray edition of River's Edge gives this movie a nice luster, although with hindsight the flaws in this glossed-up story stand out in stark relief. Director Tim Hunter's 1986 indie drama gave Keanu Reeves his first big break, although the cult audience for this once-edgy, now-creaky film has accumulated mostly from Crispin Glover's balls-to-the-wall performance. Love it or hate it, the Back to the Future actor's turn as the hyperactive alpha-male of the group, who insists his friends keep the murder a secret, pretty much steamrolls over every other aspect of this otherwise chilling little flick.
Screenwriter Neal Jimenez used a real incident from 1981 as the foundation for River's Edge's story, as a way to explore how a media-saturated society and overtaxed working conditions led to a generation of desensitized teens. A well-intentioned idea, sure, but the clunky plotting and terrible dialogue makes this morally vague tale feel like a hokey made-for-television drama. It opens on a subtle, atmospheric note, with a shlub (Daniel Roebuck as Samson) contemplating a young woman's nude corpse at a dingy riverside, while a delinquent boy observes them from afar. The boy, Tim (Joshua Miller), recognizes the murderer as a friend of his older brother, Matt (Reeves). Instead of running to the cops, Tim uses his inside-knowledge of the murder as leverage to try and score weed from Matt and his worldly, hyperkinetic friend Layne (Glover). At first they don't believe the bratty kid, yet after Samson himself cops to killing his girlfriend to Matt, Layne and their clique, the group finds themselves in a strange situation. The level-headed Matt wants to alert the authorities, yet ringleader Layne insists the murder needs to be kept under wraps to Matt and the others - including the blasé Clarissa (Ione Skye), her laid-back friend Maggie (Roxana Zal), and their stoner buddy Tony (Josh Richman). For help getting Samson out of town, Layne goes to his dealer friend, Feck (Dennis Hopper), a semi-deranged loner whose only company is the blow-up doll he named after the girlfriend he shot dead long ago. Layne's plans go awry, however, as the cops find the corpse and hone in on a suspect - causing the already drama-prone guy to become truly ballistic.
Even in its overacted, implausible state, River's Edge has a few good things going for it. Director Hunter was already well acquainted with teens-in-trouble stories, having taken part in the more concise, far superior Over the Edge in 1979. With this film, an emotionless atmosphere is nicely conveyed with scenes filmed in dingy suburban homes, convenience marts, fast food joints and littered street corners. The use of current thrash-metal songs on the soundtrack also helps convey the dulled-out nihilistic mood, although that is counterbalanced with some truly awful original scoring emanating from the bowels of crappy '80s synthesizers. Despite the incessant hamming of Glover and a few other actors (the man playing the kids' high school teacher is equally unsubtle), some nuanced work emerged from Reeves, Skye, Roebuck and the wounded, affecting Hopper. The script suffers from the lack of a point of view, however - the adults are portrayed as deluded idiots, just like the kids. The fact that the film doesn't take a firm stance on its morbid story really is the point being made here, but what I saw were a bunch disparate, faux-sincere elements that don't really coalesce into a satisfying whole.
The Blu Ray:
Like their release of Coming Home, the presentation on Kino Lorber's Studio Classics Blu Ray of River's Edge represents a marked improvement over the paltry MGM DVD edition from the early 2000s. The bland packaging on the earlier release is now replaced with the far more effective original poster art.
River's Edge gets a good, crisp 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer on this edition. The picture looks a bit over-sharpened, especially during a few dark scenes where the film grain sticks out too much. Colors are pleasantly muted, however, while the mastering strikes a good balance of light and dark elements on this decently photographed movie.
The DTS mono soundtrack is done in a pleasant sounding mix. The track lacks "oomph" on the low end, yet generally sounds fine. There's not too much distortion, while the music elements are done in a strong, unobtrusive manner. Optional English subtitles are also provided.
A newly recorded Audio Commentary has director Tim Hunter animatedly discussing the development of the script, casting, shooting on location and working with the actors (the track was a lot more interesting than the movie). The original Theatrical Trailer, emphasizing the film's creepy atmosphere, is also included.
A blasé group of small-town teens take on a code of silence when one of their peers is brutally murdered in River's Edge. The acclaimed indie drama came across as edgy in 1986 - but now it seems like the most clumsily made hokum imaginable. Kino Lorber's Studio Classics Blu Ray gives some polish to this overwrought movie, defined by some spectacularly awful acting by gonzo actor/performance artist Crispin Glover. If you're a fan, this version is a tangible upgrade from the old bare-bones DVD. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.