River’s Edge hinges on a few things. First, Joshua John Miller’s performance. The film’s about a group of teenagers reacting (and not reacting) to one of them killing another and showing off the body. Miller is protagonist Keanu Reeves’s little brother, who emulates and identifies with his brother’s worst traits. Second, Jürgen Knieper’s score. The music is ostentatious and emotive, blaring over the performances, and it needs to pay off for it to work. Finally, Crispin Glover. Glover’s performance is simultaneously affected, eccentric, and absurd. It really needs to work for Edge to succeed.
Working in Miller and Glover’s favor is the script, written by Neal Jimenez. Jimenez doesn’t have a lot of subtlety, starting with murderer Daniel Roebuck getting in a protracted argument with the gas station clerk (Taylor Negron in a fantastic cameo) about buying beer. River’s Edge is a movie where everyone speaks from the id, making more and more sense as the film goes on. Edge has a present action of thirty-six or so hours. It starts with Miller observing Roebuck wailing near the corpse, then meeting up with him at the gas station. It’s before the school day. Besides the epilogue, the main action wraps up before the end of the next school day.
The first half of Edge is entirely from the teenagers’ perspectives, whether it’s how Reeves sees mom Constance Forslund, Ione Skye’s fascination with teacher Jim Metzler, or Glover’s “friendship” with local sixties drop-out Dennis Hopper. Hopper provides the kids (and possibly their parents) with their weed. The kids get it for free. Unclear about the adults.
Hopper’s a mostly hermit, stoned all the time, playing with an unloaded revolver, dancing with his blow-up doll girlfriend, and talking about the time he once killed the woman he loved.
Hopper would be another of the film’s big swings if he didn’t pay off before the third act. It takes forever for River’s Edge to get where it’s going, amping up the danger as it goes, but along the way, there are some obvious highlights. The big turning point is in the second half when the film angles the narrative distance just enough to show the kids from the adults’ perspective. Or, at least, less subjectively than before.
Once the first school day begins, Roebuck tells Glover and Reeves about the murder and takes them to see the body. Glover immediately decides they need to help cover it up for Roebuck while Reeves detaches. Roebuck’s also detached from the situation, not exactly showing off the corpse with pride but as a curiosity. The first day has Glover bringing more people over to look at the body (everyone thinks he and Roebuck are pranking them), while Reeves gets more and more upset. He’s just unable to express it.
We’ve already seen Reeves’s home-life—Miller’s an uncontrollable shithead at best, a vicious bastard at worst. Mom Forslund already has her hands full with work, live-in asshole boyfriend Leo Rossi, and youngest child, daughter Tammy Smith. Miller obviously resents Smith and her still experiencing childhood, while he’s already getting stoned and hanging out with another little shit, Yuzo Nishihara. Miller looks up to Reeves’s friends, specifically Glover and Roebuck, while Reeves tries to keep him from bullying Smith too much. The film joins the arc in progress, with Miller’s resentment reaching its boiling point.
Similarly, Skye is nearly her limit with her erstwhile boyfriend, Glover. Late in the film, Reeves has the very adult observation; it’s just a very bad time for everything, and they need to try to get through it. Based on the other examples, it’s the most adult observation in the film. Metzler sees himself as the cool ex-hippie teacher who tells the Reagan Era kids about the good old days when his generation changed the world for the better (though Metzler would’ve been their age and seen it through teen eyes). Hopper’s arc is about confronting the narrative he’s been living and the reality he’s been avoiding, and how it plays out with this teenage social circle he’s inadvertently joined. Forslund’s overwhelmed and frantic. Then cop Tom Bower’s only approach to teenage interaction is to berate them into submission. No one really knows what to do. Their inability to acknowledge it puts them into an adversarial relationship with the teens, who are quite aware of what they’re going through. With some late-Cold War existential nuclear dread.
The majority of the runtime is spent on the night, specifically after midnight. Glover’s trying to get the gang together to hide the body and get Roebuck enough cash to leave town. It proves more difficult than expected since his car can’t make a significant trip, no one’s got any money, and Roebuck’s indifferent to an escape plan. Meanwhile, Reeves feels the consequences of his actions and inactions, including further alienating Miller while also getting into a dust-up with mom’s boyfriend Rossi.
Miller will spend the rest of the movie juxtaposed against Roebuck (often literally, kudos to Howard E. Smith and Sonya Sones’s sublime editing) as he becomes more and more dangerous, committing to taking his revenge on Reeves.
Circumstances—and Glover—pair off the rest of the cast. He exiles Skye for talking back (she’s wondering why the dead girl isn’t as important as bro Roebuck) and then assigns Reeves to keep her company, leading to a great character arc for them. Glover’s also stashed Roebuck with Hopper, which ends up forcing Hopper to deconstruct his own bullshit, unable to sympathize with psychopath Roebuck even when he tries to bond over macho stuff.
The film’s a graphic dissection of toxic masculinity, as it plays out over multiple generations, and the horrific effects it has on boys and girls alike.
In other words, Jimenez can get away with the id-speak. Likewise, Miller and Glover can get away with their performances (so long as they actually develop, which they do). And Knieper’s booming tragic operatic score has the right action to company.
Technically, Smith and Sones’s editing is the highlight. Frederick Elmer’s photography is good, but he and director Hunter shoot the film mostly naturalistically. Yes, the light’s muted, but it’s because the light’s muted. The editing is where the film finds its exquisite moments. Hunter’s direction is intentional throughout, taking well into the second act to do much besides observe the characters and their reactions. River’s Edge is mostly about reaction.
As far as the acting, Hopper’s the best performance. No one else gets anywhere near as good an arc. Skye and Reeves are good as the heroes. Glover’s indescribable yet successful. Roebuck’s appropriately disturbing, revolting, and tragic. It’s an elegant move. We get the most insight into Roebuck through Hopper’s perspective. It also helps everyone’s supposed to be stoned or drunk most of the time.
River’s Edge is a race. Hunter gets the momentum going in the first act, and the film never slows down, even as some of the plot’s more significant swings threaten the derail it. It takes until the finale to really pay off, and that pay-off is incredible stuff. Then the epilogue—not set to Knieper’s score but a perfect song selection—wraps it up beautifully.
I’m not sure it’s exactly a challenging watch, but it’s a thoughtful, painful one. River’s Edge is great.