Twelve-year-old Tim (Joshua John Miller) holds his sister's beloved doll as he stands alone on the bridge over the river, contemplates it for a while then drops it into the torrent below. Then something else catches his attention, a whooping coming from the bank where he recognises John (Daniel Roebuck) sitting there beside his girlfriend, who is lying on the grass, naked and immobile. That is because John has just killed her, and is not sure what to next - in fact, now he's a murderer, he barely feels any emotion at all, and his friends will be similarly numb...
In the eighties, you would be forgiven for thinking that American teen flicks were dominated by either the John Hughes behemoth or a bunch of exploitative comedies filled with sexual hijinks. However, there was one teen movie that while had a comedic tone, it was certainly not designed to make the audience feel good - the reason it stuck in the mind was it message was just as unclear as the young characters it followed were about how they were supposed to react. Was it simply an update of those nineteen-fifties juvenile delinquent films that were intended to have the viewers up in arms about the way society was going?
That didn't really fit either, as there was very little anger in Neal Jimenez's script as John's friends rally round him with the most resigned air possible, some of them knowing that something is wrong here, but reluctant to be the one who takes a stand. The adults are nobody worth looking up to, ranging from the ineffectual parents and step parents who they get into arguments with, to the right-on teacher (Jim Metzler) who tries to get is class to care about something the way his hippy generation did, only to get responses either emptily self-righteous or admiring that it must have been good to get into a fight with the police.
"So what?" is the unspoken mantra that pervades River's Edge, yet curiously the film did not settle for despair as in its way it becomes horribly funny. It does not make fun of the central situation, chillingly based on a true story of a murder that happened in California during 1981, but of the reaction - or lack of it - that the teens bring about. It was as if director Tim Hunter was testing the audience, and that was what turned so many off this; take Crispin Glover's extremely eccentric performance, which could be seen as highly amusing or able to drive you up the wall with its quirks. Actually, he iis excellent, the only teen to really embrace the situation and become fired up by the ghastliness of it all - yet it leads him to be the cheerleader for the emotionally bankrupt John.
Rivalling Glover for idiosyncrasy was Dennis Hopper, who for some was simply revisiting his usual sixties casualty persona as Feck, the one-legged dropout who supplies the kids with their drugs, but in effect Hopper almost stole the show away from Glover, starting out as a joke whose girlfriend is a blow up doll and reminisces about killing his own partner many years before (which may not even have happened), but then in a willfully perverse move becomes the moral centre, shared with his contemporary the teacher whose outrage when the crime comes to light is greeted with "Are we gonna be tested on this shit?" There's no attempt to make this matter, it's purely up to you how offended or amused you are by it all, making for an exceedingly brave work whose "good" characters, Keanu Reeves and Ione Skye's young lovers, don't even know why they bothered trying to do the right thing by the time this is over. There are no answers here, but the questions loom large. Music by Jurgen Knieper.