• James Rutherford

'River's Edge': A Riveting 80's-era Depiction of Alienation and Moral Desertion


Movie poster for the film River's Edge starring Keanu Reeves and Dennis Hopper

“River’s Edge” (1987) is a dark teen drama that opens with John (Daniel Roebuck) standing over the naked body of his girlfriend, Jamie, who he has brutally strangled to death in a moment of supreme yet ambiguous aggression.


As the storyline progresses, John openly brags to friends and classmates of his crime—going so far as to invite them to the scene where her corpse remains alongside the titular riverside. Stunned and dismayed, the group disbands aimlessly, while Matt (Keanu Reeves) in particular struggles with the reality of his friend’s actions. As John goes into hiding in the home of a local drug dealer (Dennis Hopper), tensions rise as the police besiege the group for information on Jamie’s death.


Based in part on the real-life 1981 murder of Marcy Renee Conrad in California, “River’s Edge” was released at a time when John Hughes and Steven Spielberg dominated cinemas with lighthearted tales of adolescent escapism—yet writer Neal Jimenez and director Tim Hunter’s offbeat film offers a far grittier look at the wayward lives of lost young souls. Their cinematic reenactment of Conrad's tragic murder delivers a wholly resonant and profoundly troubling illustration of alienation and moral desertion in America. Troubling but utterly unforgettable.

 

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