Published on September 24th, 2013 | by Craig Silliphant


Revisiting ‘River’s Edge’


I hadn’t seen the 1986 film River’s Edge in years, so when it came on one of the HD channels, I sat down to give it another viewing.  It was famously a comment on disaffected suburban youth, but a lot has happened since the mid-80s.  I wanted to know — would the film still stand up?  Would it still have a relevant message in a post-Columbine day and age?  Or would it suffer compared to movies like Gus Van Sant’s excellent Elephant?

A fictionalization of an actual incident (the murder of Marcy Renee Conrad), River’s Edge tells the story of a high school druggie that strangles his girlfriend, and then strangely, decides to tell his social group about it.  Even weirder, is the fact that his group of teenage friends don’t rush off to the police — they struggle with whether or not to keep it a secret.  As a story, it seems silly that they’d stay hushed up about it, but remember, this is what actually happened.  And this was the beginning of stories like this coming out of America.

It was a hip cast at the time, featuring Keanu Reeves and 80s girl-of-the-moment Ione Skye, as well as veteran Dennis Hopper.  But the movie’s most notable performance comes from weirdo Crispin Glover, who went on to play George McFly in Back to the Future, and here displays a glorious command of the art of overacting.

At the start of the movie, I was getting the sense that River’s Edge wasn’t going to hold up, mostly because of Glover.  At first, he seems pretty goofy, but as the film goes on, he makes more sense as a crazy-eyed, drugged-up wastoid who wants to cover up his friend’s horrific crime.  By the end, I had decided, the movie does hold up, and well.  Its strange and tragic characters grab hold of you, thanks to the cold and assuring direction of Tim Hunter (who also made Tex with Matt Dillon and went on to a decent career in TV, including directing episodes of shows like Mad Men).  It’s the film’s chilling preciseness, and even some dark humour, that pulls us out of the 80s cheese and makes for a compelling trip down the rabbit hole of teenage apathy.  There’s no John Hughes soundtrack here — in fact, it’s filled with abrasive thrash bands like Slayer, which helps to set the tone.

But what stuck out to me about the movie went beyond the movie itself.  Like similar films, it was mired in controversy when it was released.  These kids roam the suburban landscape, with hardly a parent in sight (and when we do see parents, they are as fucked up as the kids).  But to me, River’s Edge had a clear message — it wasn’t simply a glorification of sociopathic murders.  It made me think of the same reaction, almost a decade later, to Larry Clark’s Kids (or to a lesser degree, Clark’s Bully, which treads a lot of the same ground as River’s Edge).  To maintain context, not all critics or moviegoers take the extreme reaction to such films, but there are plenty who miss the point.

Variety critic Todd McCarthy said of Kids, “[Kids] seems voyeuristic and exploitative of its young subjects [and] will undoubtedly raise the spectre of kiddie porn.”  While that argument can’t be totally dismissed, it misses the point of movies like these.  In fact, much of North America missed the point.  Kids, like River’s Edge, is a wake up call to parents everywhere.  Instead of getting on a high horse about the downfall of society because of these movies, people should be taking them as a cinematic warning.  But we just hate looking in the mirror, don’t we?  We hate that a film might show us that our lackluster-look-the-other-way parenting and hypocritic society in general might be causing the disaffection of youth, not the other way around.


So we chastise the movies instead, even though, in the case of Bully or River’s Edge, they’re based on actual events.  I can’t say that ignoring these movies, or writing them off as people like Todd McCarthy did is what caused things to get worse, but it didn’t help, I’m sure.  Now, a generation later, kids are walking into elementary schools with machine guns and explosives, making the characters in River’s Edge look like they stumbled out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Even today’s warnings, like Van Sant’s Elephant are still being ignored, the cinematic equivalents of Cassandra, the Greek mythological character who was granted the gift of prophesising the future, but cursed so that no one listen to her.  Todd McCarthy said of Elephant,  “To make a film about something like the Columbine student shootings incident and provide no insight or enlightenment would seem to be pointless at best and irresponsible at worst, and that is what Gus Van Sant has done in Elephant.”


River’s Edge and its sibling films should be examined with a finer lens, especially in McCarthy’s case, as he seems to need to be hit over the head with the point.  The precise reason Elephant or Kids or River’s Edge work is because they don’t hammer you with the point — they tells the story, assuming the audience is smart enough to form their own opinions.  As I said, River’s Edge stands up today as an entertaining movie, but also as a hard look at the tough subject of how our actions can create little monsters in our own children.

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About the Author

is a D-level celebrity with delusions of grandeur. A writer, critic, creative director, editor, broadcaster, and occasional filmmaker, his thoughts have appeared on radio, television, in print, and on the web. He is a juror on the Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Awards. He loves Saskatoon. He has horrible night terrors and apocalyptic dreams.

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