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'River's Edge' (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 29, 1987

It's a gray northern California morning, and by the edge of the muddy waters of a river at flood-tide, a big, lumpish teen-age boy lets out a couple of loud, spirited whoops. Beside him lies the nude body of his girlfriend, whom he's just strangled to death. Only a short time has passed, but already her lips have turned a grape-juicy purple, and, lying against the bright green of the grass, her skin has an unearthly alabaster hue. Sitting at her feet, the boy stares into space, rocking gently back and forth, clutching the girl's clothes. He seems paralyzed. Death, he thinks to himself, changes everything.

The image of that dead girl's body at the begining of Tim Hunter's new film, "River's Edge," is a potent one, and it's at the mixed-up heart of this movie. Nobody seems to know how to react to it. Neil Jimenez, who wrote the screenplay, and Hunter have loosely based their story on a similar 1981 case in Milpitas, Calif., in which a heavy-metal teen throttled his girlfriend, raped her and then walked away, leaving her nude body behind.

The movie evolves in much the same way. After grabbing a couple of brews, John (Daniel Roebuck) goes to school and tells his friends, not so much indulging in locker room braggadocio as looking for help. He's panicked, and when they don't believe him, he takes them in small groups down to the river bank. Looking at her stone-dead corpse, they still can't believe it. One member of the gang, Layne (Crispin Glover), pokes her with a stick to see if she's real.

The movie, which is Hunter's second feature -- his first was "Tex" -- focuses on a group of dopers and heavy-metal freaks who have known each other since kindergarten. These kids are casually amoral. They smoke and drink beer and hang out at the arcades. They are completely unsophisticated and, in the area of sex, not very advanced. They're blanked out, voidoids, and their emotions have been so worn away that they can't even react to the loss of their friend. Only Layne, the group's de facto leader, seems to have an emotional response. And, in practical terms, it's the wrong one.

Layne, a rag-mop speed freak, is not only the gang chief, he's their moral center. From his point of view -- which, though it makes sense, is hard to embrace, simply because Glover is so bad -- John's act is a test of their loyalty and friendship, and he tries to encourage his mates to come to his aid. But even John is unmoved. When Layne asks him to help bury the body, he answers over his shoulder, "She's heavy."

At its worst, "River's Edge" is crackpot sociology. Jimenez and Hunter use the characters' lack of affect as an indictment. The film has a hectoring, hysterical tone. It wants to find out why these kids, who have grown up in splintered, lower-middle-class homes, are like they are. They want to blame somebody.

But the movie's thinking is hackneyed and sloppy. "River's Edge" looks at its troubled teen-agers in the same way that the youth movies of the '50s and '60s did. It's like "Rebel Without a Cause," but only the bad parts -- the scenes between James Dean and Jim Backus.

The movie's point of view is essentially that of alarmed parents. In one scene, a cop bears down on the Matt (Keanu Reeves), the boy who "narcs" on John, screaming, "What did you feel when you saw her? Were you shocked? Angered? Excited? Or didn't you feel anything?"

Matt's answer is always the same: "I don't know." And the filmmakers want us to hear the rumbling of the apocalypse in his words. It's "I don't know" written in thunder.

The film raises questions -- about our reactions to death, about the ramifications of change in the culture -- and then makes a muddle of them. What the filmmakers don't seem to realize is that a numbed response to anything as monumental as death is a natural one. Why then, at the end of "River's Edge," does something of the movie stay with you? Partly because, however ineptly, it manages to touch on something -- on a sort of deadening of the soul -- that's threateningly real and that these teens symbolize.

The best scenes in the film are those that move outside its range of cultural thinking -- the ones in which Dennis Hopper lives. Hunter tries to turn Hopper's character, a one-legged ex-biker named Feck who supplies weed to the kids, into a symbol of '60s romantic passion to contrast with the blitzed-out children of the '80s -- but Hopper won't allow it. Hopper brings too much real experience to the role for that.

Feck is another one of Hopper's sainted crazies. Twenty years ago he killed his own girlfriend -- blew her brains out. Now his closest (and only) friend is Ellie, an inflatable sex doll. By description, what Hopper does here might sound like the a variation on his lunatic virtuosity in "Blue Velvet." And, in a sense, it is.

In interviews, Hopper has talked about how he's always idolized James Dean. But in his recent movies, Hopper has shown that he's become a greater actor than Dean. Hopper has attained real tragic grandeur on the screen. In "River's Edge," he manages to show the normal feelings of loss that are buried under Feck's depravity. When he asks John, "Did you love her?" the movie is jacked up to a different level. And their scene together by the river is a marvel, for both actors, but particularly for Hopper. It's those scenes, and their spooky personal rhythms, that you take away from the film.

"River's Edge" contains nudity, profanity and some scenes of violence.

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