River’s Edge

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When I was in middle school my best friend Danny and I were obsessed with Crispin Glover’s performance in River’s Edge (1987). To this day whenever I have a beer I can’t help but mimic Glover’s line “It’s warm even”. Glover’s performance is truly inspired although it would have been nice to give him an end title song à la Twister (1989). But what was and still is most appealing about River’s Edge is that it’s unlike any other youth in revolt movie. It’s an anti-youth youth picture.

River’s Edge is the dark horse version of Over The Edge (1979) and Rebel Without A Cause (1955). In these earlier films the young audience is invited to share the outrage of the youthful protagonists. In River’s Edge the young audience is asked to look at themselves and ask the question “would I have acted any different?” River’s Edge is critical of the circumstances that prompt revolt. It subverts its genre by critiquing the narrative beats that define the genre.

These youth oriented movies all deal with mortality. As a teenager we all feel invincible and these films threaten that. River’s Edge not only threatens that concept, but reiterates it. The young people who see their friend’s corpse don’t respond with outrage because their own sense of immortality has not been threatened. They, like the audience, feel secure.

It’s a dark paradox at the heart of a film wrought with all the existential nihilism of latter day Bresson. River’s Edge paints a portrait of a low income community that presages the casual cruelties and everyday surrealism of Gummo (1997). River’s Edge opens like Twin Peaks, proceeds like Gummo, and ends à la Bresson.

As a teen in middle school who worshipped weirdos like Crispin Glover, Werner Herzog, and Dennis Hopper, River’s Edge was a promise of the cold heartedness of high school years to come. Of course my experience of high school was nothing like River’s Edge really. But the film did leave me with a self-awareness that I think kept me from being a total asshole.

Since I first saw River’s Edge on VHS all those years ago I have always kept my eye out for director Tim Hunter’s name. I knew I liked his style after seeing River’s Edge and his work on Twin Peaks. So seeing his name pop up over the years on shows like Mad Men has always been a treat. But nothing he’s made has ever impacted me as strongly as River’s Edge. River’s Edge remains an under appreciated masterpiece.