Director Tim Hunter is so pleased with the surprisingly good box office that his controversial film “River’s Edge” is doing that he’s loath to discuss the film lest he jinx things. “I’m a storyteller, not a sociologist,” he protests, “and I don’t want to sermonize about the state of American teen-agers today. The film is resonant with symbols and meanings and I’ll leave it to the critics to analyze them.”
A fictionalized retelling of the 1981 rape and murder of 14-year-old Marcy Conrad by Anthony Jacque Broussard, 16, “River’s Edge” focuses on the aftermath of the killing in Milpitas, Calif., that brought a crowd of juvenile delinquent “stoners” to a moral crossroads few of them could navigate. The film featuring Crispin Glover and Dennis Hopper touches on a number of emotionally loaded issues--misguided idealism and the decay of the family foremost among them--and we see the hippie dream of the ‘60s heave a shuddering death rattle in the character of Feck, a burned-out biker played by Hopper. It’s a rather dark story, to say the least.
Based on an original script by 27-year-old screenwriter Neal Jimenez, “River’s Edge” was a hard sell that floated around Hollywood for three years before finally making it to the screen. Jimenez describes his screenplay as a record of his generation’s despair, and Hunter’s clinically detached direction does little to soften the ride through the moral vacuum sketched by Jimenez.
Amazingly enough, this bleak saga has taken in about $216,000 in two weeks at only four theaters, and the groundswell of interest in the film continues to build. Made for just $1.7 million by Hemdale Films, “River’s Edge” would seem to be sitting pretty financially. Nonetheless, Hunter discusses the film with a reluctance that suggests he still feels it has the potential to blow up in his face.
Asked if he thinks that the film lays the blame anywhere for the tragic story it recounts, he replies, “I’m gonna dodge that question.”
A number of critics have cited the Dennis Hopper character, Feck, as being the conscience of the film. Feck, too, is a killer; however, he kills emotionally, whereas the young protagonist Samson (Daniel Roebuck) killed for no reason and feels no remorse.
“In making the film, we talked a lot about where the morality in the story lay and which character represented a moral and emotional position,” Hunter explains. “Many people consider Feck to be the film’s custodian of morality, and he does represent a certain moral code and romantic position. At the same time, he’s a true sociopath and not entirely on the level.”
Clearly, “River’s Edge” is a troubling web of contradictions. So subtly shaded is Hunter’s direction that it’s never even clear whether we’re intended to empathize with his characters.
“I certainly feel compassion for these people and I would hope that audiences are moved enough that they don’t automatically dismiss these kids as monsters,” Hunter says. These kids may not be monsters but they do some good impressions of lower life forms during various sequences of the film. “I cried when the guy in ‘Brian’s Song’ died,” says Clarissa (Ione Skye), the dead girl’s close friend. “Why couldn’t I cry for Jamie?” she asks with a chilling lack of emotion. The blase behavior of these people is so horrifying that it often seems downright funny, and Hunter intentionally plays many bits of deadpan dialogue for laughs.
“One of the things that drew me to this project was its unsettling combination of Fritz Lang-style social melodrama and Surrealistic black comedy. It was a challenge to try to capture both those things at once, and in making the film we had quite a good time doing much of it because we were all keenly aware of the heavy overlay of black humor.”
Though the comic element of “River’s Edge” hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed, the popular response is one of revulsion. Bombarded by a steady barrage of violent films, why are audiences squeamish about this virtually blood-free film?
“I think it disturbs people because they remember the murder case on which it’s based with a mixture of fascination and horror,” Hunter concludes, “and the film taps into those two emotions.”
Actor Crispin Glover, who appears in the film as the charismatic gang leader Layne, offers a different theory.
“People always have a perverse fascination with young people who do abnormal things, and I think that’s what they find upsetting about ‘River’s Edge,’ ” speculates the 22-year-old actor during an interview at his Hollywood apartment. “Personally, I don’t find the idea of a 16-year-old murderer any more disturbing than the idea of a 40-year-old murderer.”
Almost as controversial as “River’s Edge’s” story is Glover’s performance in the film. Last seen as goofy dad George McFly in “Back to the Future,” Glover plays Layne as a hyperkinetic whirlwind of nervous tics and cool mannerisms. So stylized and extreme is his performance that Island Pictures, the film’s distributor, asked Hunter to dub in a line of dialogue early in the picture to explain Layne’s baffling behavior (he’s an amphetamine freak).
Glover’s memorable, if highly theatrical, performance has been faulted for throwing the picture out of balance.
“I think Crispin’s performance adds dimension to the film and I’m happy to see that it’s aroused some controversy,” says Hunter. “I feel a bit like Reagan being asked if he was aware of what North was doing right under his nose,” he adds with a laugh.
“Tim and I were in agreement as to how my character should be portrayed,” Glover says. “He certainly got what I was doing, although a lot of people don’t seem to get what it is I’m trying to do. The hand gestures and whatnot--those things just made sense to me on an instinctual level. That seemed to me to be the way this character would move. I’ve heard that Neal Jimenez had a specific person in mind when he wrote my character, but I never spoke to him about it and didn’t feel it was important to learn about the guy Layne’s based on. Acting is more an act of imagination for me.
“I didn’t do much research to prepare for the film and pretty much referred to the script for the information I needed. I grew up in California, so I’m familiar with the world where this story takes place and I’ve known people like Layne. I never really hung around kids like that, but I was never blind to them and always found them interesting.”
Living as we do in a society that reveres fame regardless of how it’s attained, one could make the case that the behavior of the kids in “River’s Edge” is being condoned and glamorized in making it the subject of a movie--a movie, moreover, that refrains from making moral judgments.
“I don’t think these kids are glamorized at all,” says the disarmingly guileless Glover. “I wouldn’t want to live what they live through in this film. It doesn’t seem like they’re having a fun day. At the same time, I don’t think Layne is evil, nor are any of the characters. The way I see it, Layne’s sort of a sorrowful guy. He’s trying so hard to get this thing together and it’s falling apart before his very eyes. It’s really impossible to pinpoint a villain in this story, nor is it fair to blame suburban America for these kids’ problems, because all different kinds of people come out of all different kinds of homes. That environment probably really devastates some people and really invigorates others.”
Like Hunter, Glover takes considerable pleasure in the black humor that runs through “River’s Edge.”
“I don’t want to sound cold or anything but I think it’s a funny movie in many ways,” Glover concludes. “Sure there’s a death, and killing people is a bad thing. I don’t want to get killed and I don’t want to kill anybody, but the story in ‘River’s Edge’ doesn’t horrify me. Humor lurks everywhere in life, and there’s lots of stuff in this story that makes me laugh. Yes, there are shocking sequences, but when I went out and saw it recently I didn’t walk out of the theater crushed or anything.”