"River's Edge" (today at Mann's Regent and Chinese) is a contemporary horror story about teen-agers, but it contains no slasher scenes or serial homicides. Its monsters are all too real.
The film begins with the revelation of a murder--a killer on a river bank brooding over his victim in the cold morning light--and ends with a funeral. Yet, though death brackets the story, it's less about slaughter than its aftermath: the moral consequences. The people here seem barren of ordinary empathy or compassion, and the violence is less scary than the numbed sensibilities that confront it.
Director Tim Hunter and writer Neal Jimenez show what seems a twisted legacy of the '60s: kids who adopt Vietnam War-era life styles--with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll--without the pressures of war, kids who've assumed their parent's rebelliousness, but not their causes.
It's a rich theme, though it gets through only sporadically. In "River's Edge," the parts don't always jell. Some of the characters are shallow, and the story lapses into easy ironies. But in a way, these flaws are linked to the film's strongest quality: a feeling it gives of speaking from the heart. "River's Edge" always has a cutting contemporaneity, and when it's great--as in Dennis Hopper's scenes--passion boils over the edges.
In the film, based loosely on a 1981 murder in Milpitas, Calif., brutish Samson Tollett (Daniel Roebuck) strangles his girlfriend on the river bank and afterward confesses to six of his friends. In these first scenes, the shots of the corpse seem purposely disruptive, almost nauseating--the victim's flesh poisonously white, her eyes horror-stricken, open wide. The killer's eyes, in contrast, seem hazy, lidded, half-shut, as do most of his friends'.
It's as if they can't connect with the murder or life's preciousness. Their gazes seem half-dead, stoned. They're shocked, but cynical, as if the constant flood of violence from everywhere around them--radio, TV, newspapers, movies--has anesthetized them as much as it has the plot.
One of them, hysterical poseur and pill popper Layne (Crispin Glover), appoints himself Samson's guardian. Another, Matt (Keanu Reaves), eventually informs.
The movie should pivot around Matt's moral crisis, but it doesn't; the central love story--between Matt and sexy Clarissa (Ione Skye Leitch)--gets too prom-night kittenish. These love scenes need more tension and terror; as they're played now, they belong in some other, formulaic teen-age movie. Perhaps when Jimenez first wrote the script--as a 20-year-old UCLA student--he saw the story as a more commercial shocker because, as in many shockers, the heavies or semi-heavies take over: Samson himself, Layne, Joshua Miller as Matt's hellbent little brother Tim, and, most of all, Dennis Hopper as Feck.
Feck is a one-legged pusher and ex-biker, tormented by guilt over the long-ago murder of his own lover; his only "friend" is a life-size sex doll named Ellie.
Perhaps this seems a Corman-era gargoyle, but on screen, Hopper skillfully peels off the layers of the part. It's like a blend of his two bravura 1986 roles: Frank Booth's nitroglycerin psychotic in "Blue Velvet," and Shooter's poignant loser in "Hoosiers." Feck's craziness is his elaborate defense against guilt. When he is confronted with Samson, another killer--and hears his brutal, near-existentialist rationalizations--we see Feck's mask rubbing off, a less-mad light dawning in his eyes.
The encounters between the two killers are at the heart of this movie. Feck shows the half-posturing romantic rage of the '60s, Samson, the grisly, feckless do-your-own-thing-and-die materialism of the '80s. And the halting, wounded inflections Hopper gives to lines like "I'll be your friend" (to a storming Samson) and "You weren't supposed to get old" (to Ellie) are devastating. That taut, wolfish face seems stretched over tears, and there is a deep, incongruous sadness in these scenes. The movie's whole meaning seems charged in them.
By contrast, Glover's Layne seems way over the top--though, weirdly, he's sometimes almost as impressive. Glover works up such a gale of amphetamine, glassy-eyed mania and hyperkinetic flailing that he seems to be overloading his lines, teasing and torturing them out of shape. Perhaps he and Hunter should have deviated from the script more, embroidered speeches: The fragile, androgynous-looking Layne probably couldn't dominate this group any way but with words, and he needs more of them. He needs to swoop around in half-surreal, cloudy, disconnected snatches and con-man babbling. Right now he's like a crazed speed-rapper without all of his rap.
There's a lot of low-key poetry and nicely casual tension in Hunter's direction and in Frederick Elmes' cinematography--and the acting ensemble is fine. For all its flaws and the revulsion it may induce, "River's Edge" (MPAA rated: R, for sex, nudity and language) has something valuable: a dark, harrowing but moral perspective. In a way, it would be better if it were even bleaker, if it shucked the love-puppy play and the climax in the church.
But movies that bleak rarely get made now; this one seems chilly enough.
'RIVER'S EDGE' An Island Pictures release of a Hemdale Film Corp. presentation. Producers Sarah Pillsbury, Midge Sanford. Director Tim Hunter. Script Neal Jimenez. Executive producers John Daly, Derek Gibson. Camera Frederick Elmes. Music Jurgen Knieper. Editors Howard Smith, Sonya Sones. With Crispin Glover, Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye Leitch, Dennis Hopper, Daniel Roebuck, Roxana Zal, Joshua Miller.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).