Sunday, March 12, 2017

JRO's #95: River's Edge (Tim Hunter, 1986)

20 years ago, there was a good chance that I would name River’s Edge as one of my favorite movies of all time. Sometimes I would name it is as my #1.

A re-watch a couple of years ago convinced me that the film was important to me when I was younger, but that I had grown away from it.

A re-watch two nights ago convinced me that this is still one of the most important films I’ve ever seen. I feel guilty that this isn’t at least in the 30s or 20s on this list. It should be. There are some films later on the list that I could live without. Not so this one. This one is essential. Eh. So it goes.

I don’t remember when I first saw this. Anywhere in the 13-16 range. It was probably a Star Video rental. I do remember talking with Troeller about it. Troeller’s Ghost hangs heavy over this list. Indeed, much of my taste in film (and literature and life) is indebted to William Troeller. I loved talking film with him. I just loved talking to him. I miss him.

Aside: There is one director who appears on this list more often than any other; he probably wouldn’t be here on the list if it were not for Troeller. That director will probably come as a surprise to everyone here. I’ll entertain guesses from everyone below in the comments. If anyone guesses right, I’ll buy you a sixer of your favorite beer. Heck, I’ll even help you drink it. ;-)

River’s Edge.

It’s a masterpiece of existentially aware cultural reflection. It is as effective as it is because it refuses to make easy condemnations. It asks questions, but it has no (direct) answers. “I don’t know.”

Has there been a moral breakdown in society? Yeah. So what? That’s just a symptom. The dis-ease runs deeper. The Rebel Without a Cause has become the new normal by the mid-80s, a Generation Without a Cause. What’s lacking in life isn’t a clear sense of right and wrong. What’s lacking now is any sense of purpose at all. Why choose any thing over any other thing? Are there any bonds left that tie us together that have not been loosed? These are some of the questions either implicitly or explicitly asked by this film.

Family has no hold. The church is a place for corpses. School is a stifling factory setting to be endured. The self in this setting has no aspirations beyond the pursuit of pleasure, any little thing that will bring relief. Friends are there as a means of distraction and escape, but mutual hedonism only provides so much social cohesion. There is no way forward within any of the current systems. And there is no way forward outside of any of the current systems. Yet everyday, decisions must be made.

Anomie and apathy rule. Why decide anything?

As usual, death provides a clarity to life that was lacking otherwise. The murder of one friend by another provokes a small crisis in a community of friends in which each one has to take a stance, realizing finally that not doing anything is just as ultimately a stance as doing something concrete. But how does a person move forward and make a decision when he or she has never been given the tools to do so? There are no hard awakenings or flash epiphanies in River’s Edge. There is only fumbling and stumbling.


This one is available to “Watch Now” if you’ve got Prime Video (or if you have access to your mother’s Prime account, whatever). Obviously, I highly recommend that you do so.

I should probably rant here about my dislike of child actors playing morally compromised roles. I should, but I won’t. Maybe it’s because I saw it when I was young or because the performance is so roughly honest, in that the kiddishness is still there in every tortured moment of posturing; the kid who plays the 12-year-old little brother Tim is excellent in unexpected ways (I looked up his name, but I’ve already forgotten it).

This is Crispin Glover’s second best performance of all time. His first best appearance of all time appears much higher on this list.

This is the only time that Keanu Reeves will make it on the list, but both Bill & Ted movies are honorable mentions.

Jiminez, the man who wrote the screenplay at a very young age, never wrote anything nearly as good again.

It has always saddened me a bit that Tim Hunter, the director, never made many more films. His film criticism (I’ll link to his great scathing review of The Graduate) is perceptive. He has since done a lot of television work. There’s a very good chance that all of you have seen something directed by him. My guess is that he settled for the good money of regular work over against the struggle to create honest art. It’s an understandable choice.

Hunter’s The Graduate review for his college newspaper -

Let's keep it about the movies.


  1. River's Edge sounds interesting; I'll check it out. 1986 was a good year.

    I read that review of The Graduate. I'll have it in the back of my mind when I rewatch the movie to talk about its place on my list. I know there isn't a lot of love for The Graduate among this project's members. I enjoy the film but don't feel any strong connection to Nichols. I guess I'll save the rest of my thoughts for another time.

    No worries on the texts. I, too, hate the constant buzzing of phones.

  2. I'll check this out on prime soon.