In his film guide, Heavy Metal Movies, Mike McPadden describes the disturbing 1987 teen crime drama River’s Edge as being “666 Candles“. It’s a perfect description because River’s Edge appears to not only be taking place in a different socio-economic setting than Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club but perhaps on a different planet as well.
River’s Edge opens with a close-up of a dead and naked teenage girl lying on the edge of a dirty, polluted river and it gets darker from there. The dead girl was the girlfriend of the hulking John Tollet (Daniel Roebuck, playing a character who is miles away from his role in Cavegirl). As John explains to his friends, he strangled her for no particular reason. His friends, meanwhile, respond with detachment. Their unofficial leader, the hyperactive Layne (Crispin Glover), insists that since nothing can be done about the dead girl, their number one concern now has to be to keep John from getting caught. While Layne arranges for John to hide out with a one-legged drug dealer named Feck (Dennis Hopper), two of John’s friends, Matt and Clarissa (played by Keanu Reeves and Ione Skye), consider whether or not they should go to the police. Oddly enough, John really doesn’t seem to care one way or the other.
Seriously, River’s Edge is one dark film. If it were made today, River’s Edge would probably be directed by someone like Larry Clark and, in many ways, it feels like a distant cousin to Clark’s Bully. The teenagers in River’s Edge live in a world with little-to-no adult supervision. Matt’s mom is more concerned with whether or not Matt has been stealing her weed than with the fact that Matt might be covering up a murder. The local high school teacher is a former hippie who won’t shut up about how much better his generation was compared to every other generation. In fact, the only adult with any sort of moral code is Feck and he’s usually too busy dancing with a sex doll to really be of much help. It’s a world where no one has been raised to value their own lives so why should they care about a dead girl laying out on the banks of the river?
The film features good performances from Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, and Daniel Roebuck but really, the entire movie is stolen by Crispin Glover and Dennis Hopper. In the role of Layne, Glover is a manic wonder, speaking quickly and gesturing even when he isn’t making a point. When Layne first shows up, he seems like he’s just overly loyal to his friend John but, as the film progresses, it becomes more apparent that he’s less concerned about protecting John and more interested in ordering other people to do it. For Layne, protecting John is ultimately about maintaining power over Matt, Clarissa, and the rest of their friends.
As for Dennis Hopper — well, this is one of those films that you should show to anyone who says that Hopper wasn’t a great actor. The role of a one-legged drug dealer who lives with a sex doll sound like exactly the type of role that would lead Hopper to going totally over-the-top. Instead, Hopper gave a surprisingly subtle and intelligent performance and, as a result, he provided this film with the moral center that it very much needs.