The Summer Of '80s Movies: 'River's Edge' Needs Coco Chanel's Best Advice
by Linda Holmes
Given that he's a guy who takes a lot of abuse and a guy almost everyone will gamely impersonate if given the chance, Keanu Reeves has had a much more interesting career than you'd think. In fact, if you look at his resume, he's bounced around from genre to genre as much as almost any actor you're going to encounter.
He's done action movies (Point Break, Speed, obviously The Matrix), he's done overwrought dramas (The Devil's Advocate), he's done romantic melodrama (Sweet November, The Lake House, A Walk In The Clouds), he's done highly respectable award-winners (Dangerous Liaisons, My Own Private Idaho), he's done Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing), he's done goofball farce (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure), he's done light romantic comedy (The Replacements), and he's done middlebrow crowd-pleasing comedy (Parenthood, Something's Gotta Give).
He's actually kind of a fascinating guy, even if I'm as fond as anyone of yelling, "Cans! There was no baby! It was full of cans!" (Thank you, thank you.) (See here, starting at about the 6:20 mark, for the original.)
And the first movie where people really talked about him was River's Edge, which won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film in 1987, beating out not only The Big Easy starring Dennis Quaid, but also John Sayles' Matewan.
How does it look more than 20 years later? Well...it looks, for lack of a more precise word, very, very weird.
In fact, it's appropriate that this is the movie Crispin Glover was promoting when he made his famous apparently unhinged appearance on what was then Late Night With David Letterman on NBC, because "unhinged" doesn't even begin to describe it.
A kick in the head, advice from a fashion genius, why Dennis Hopper didn't need a blow-up doll, and more, after the jump...
The basic idea of the movie is an interesting (if horrifying) one: Several high school friends learn that their buddy John (Daniel Roebuck, who played Arzt on Lost) has killed his girlfriend and left her nude body on a riverbank. In fact, they all go down there and have a look. But at first, nobody calls the police. Paralyzed by an odd combination of fear, loyalty, and a lack of interest in getting mixed up in it, they look at her body and then walk away and leave it there.
There's certainly an interesting thought here, and the potential to look at the odd social dynamics of high school, the panicky way people react to situations for which they are completely unprepared, desensitization to violence, and so forth.
But...well, do you know the Coco Chanel rule about how a woman should get dressed, look in the mirror, and take off one accessory before she leaves the house? The idea is that you will almost always overdo it on your first try, and that second passes are there partly to force you to do a little less.
Movies would often be wise to take exactly the same step, except that in the case of River's Edge, they would have had to take off not one thing but about ten or fifteen affectations that only serve to distract from that interesting little nut of a story.
The most obvious is Glover's performance as the group's "leader" Layne, which is best understood as a mashup of the way he played George McFly in Back To The Future and the way he behaved with David Letterman. Yes, he's supposed to be a speed addict, but every line reading is so hyper and he's chewing on every word so hard that the theater fills with giggles. The performance is a perfect example of the difference between the best acting and the most acting; he's certainly working hard enough, but it looks ridiculous.
You can see for yourself in this clip (caution: language). It's tempting to say the acting is terrible, except that he's clearly doing it on purpose. He means it to be exactly like that, and whether you like it or not, that's the characterization he's chosen for Layne, who -- I would stress -- is in a movie not meant to be a comedy, much as that clip may lead you to believe otherwise. So it's not inept acting so much as a huge miscalculation on everyone's part.
The second problem is the character of Feck, played by Dennis Hopper. Feck is the local pot supplier and Layne's pal, and here are his notable qualities: (1) He socializes with a blow-up doll. (2) He has only one leg. (3) He plays the saxophone. (4) He once killed a woman. It is way, way too much, even for Dennis Hopper. Either the blow-up doll or the artificial leg on the reclusive drug source; not both. To return to Chanel, that's not merely a shiny brooch and a shiny pendant; that's stacking two hats on your head.
As if that isn't enough, Reeves' character, Matt, has a twelve-year-old brother who appears to be possibly the most disturbed person in the movie and at one point winds up stalking Matt with a gun for reasons only tangentially related to the rest of the story (but, of course, designed to drive home even harder the theme of misdirected, violent, cold-hearted youth).
And so, from this tiny, promising idea of how it's possible that a bunch of kids might view a body without telling anyone -- an idea inspired by a true (though very different) story -- the movie turns into an overproduced and self-important parade of grotesque tics: Hopper trembles, Glover spaces out, the twelve-year-old narrows his eyes...and at the center of the movie, Reeves and a 15-year-old Ione Skye (making her screen debut) play the two relatively normal kids who obviously aren't going to be able to live forever with the knowledge they now have.
There's an effort here to say something serious about violence and alienation and perhaps the smoking a lot of marijuana, but it's all so excessive, and there are so many diversions of the audience's attention, that the basic horror of the situation -- which shouldn't need adornment unless you're inadequately horrified by the simple fact of a body remaining on a riverbank while no one does anything -- is undermined.