The murder of a teenage girl is met with juvenile apathy and misplaced loyalty in 1986’s River’s Edge, AKA Stand By Me on crack.
Loosely based on a real case from 1981, this is one of the most haunting and unusual teen dramas this side of The Last Picture Show. It portrays a post-punk, post-nuclear generation coming to terms with the fact that they exist in the world, apparently indifferent to the death of their friend; “I couldn’t even cry for her,” admits Clarissa (Ione Skye), like a flannel-shirted version of Albert Camus’ Stranger.
Meanwhile Matt’s (Keanu Reeves) little sister has no trouble in grieving the “death” of her doll, and the high school teacher (Jim Metzler) bemoans a loss of youthful idealism (“All the hippies are executives now and everybody’s sold out”). The disaffected teenagers occupy the existential no man’s land in the middle; the picture begins with the victim’s death and ends with her funeral, creating a Six Feet Under-style liminality.
Crucially the teens are never demonised but depicted as let down by Reaganite America and the broken promises of the 1960s, embodied by a deranged biker named Feck (Dennis Hopper) in a committed relationship with a sex doll called Ellie (“She’s a doll, I know that… right Ellie?”). This isn’t a nihilistic film, rather a lament for a lost generation; its pessimism is offset by black humour and the moral, even romantic characters of Matt and Clarissa.
Neal Jimenez’s bizarrely beautiful and sardonic screenplay is written in a way that understands teen vernacular; the characters talk like teenagers and act like weirdos. Reeves is in his element as a stoner, while Crispin Glover gives one of the most insane performances ever put to screen and appears to be the basis for The Simpsons‘ Jimbo Jones. One can also see the seeds of Twin Peaks and Brick in its profound sense of youthful alienation.
Directed and lensed by David Lynch collaborators Tim Hunter and Frederick Elmes, River’s Edge is shot through a haze of economic ruin, parental breakdown and a proliferation of guns. The result is a stoned nightmare of a movie, magnetic in its weirdness and unflinching in its point of view.