Friday, March 29, 2013

National Treasure


Nicolas Cage has run the gamut of the action film genre. He’s played the reluctant action hero in The Rock (1996), a cartoonish icon in Con Air (1997) and the amoral bad guy in Face/Off (1997). With National Treasure (2004) he added another variation to his repertoire — the non-violent problem solver – one of several pleasant surprises in this movie. Usually, you don’t see this kind of a protagonist in a Jerry Bruckheimer action movie. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was known for cranking out R-rated fare like Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Bad Boys (1995). With Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), the busy producer began moving towards more family-friendly projects.

I’m a sucker for action/adventure movies with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) being my gateway drug. I just love seeing an action hero making his way through dangerous, exotic locales looking for some wealthy bit of treasure. Raiders spawned countless imitators, but nobody has been able to top what Steven Spielberg and George Lucas did with that film. Some have come close and I would argue that National Treasure comes pretty close. Unfairly trashed by critics as a Da Vinci Code rip-off (the book, not the film), it nevertheless connected with mainstream audiences, scoring decent enough sized numbers at the box office that a sequel was made three years later.

As a child, Benjamin Franklin Gates was told a story by his grandfather (Christopher Plummer) about an ancient valuable treasure brought over to North America by the Freemasons during the discovery of the New World. Over the years, the location of the vast treasure was moved around and ultimately lost as the people who knew it eventually died off. Now, only a few clues exist but they aren’t easy to find and decipher. Ben’s cynical father Patrick (Jon Voight) scoffs at this story, not wanting to see his son follow in his family’s footsteps. However, he grows up to be a world-class treasure hunter (Nicolas Cage) and has never forgotten his grandfather’s story. It has become a life-long obsession, handed down from generation to generation.

The trail of clues leads to a secret map hidden somewhere on the Declaration of Independence, but how can he gain access to it? His partner, Ian (Sean Bean), decides that the only way is to steal it, which goes against Gates’ code of honor. They part company on less than amicable terms — Ian tries to blow him up. Gates’ quest takes him to such diverse places as Washington, D.C., the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and Trinity Church in New York City. To help him achieve his goal, Gates enlists the help of Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) or rather he tries to con her so that they can look at the Declaration before Ian steals it. However, his story is more than a little far-fetched so, he decides to steal it in order to protect it with the help of his trusty sidekick (and comic relief) Riley Poole (Justin Bartha). In the ensuing chaos, Dr. Chase is caught in the middle and shanghaied by Gates and Riley. If that wasn’t bad enough, a determined FBI agent by the name of Sadusky (Harvey Keitel) is on their trail. Now, Gates has to stay one step ahead of the law and Ian.


National Treasure differentiates between the good guys and the bad guys in the methods that they employ. Ian and his men carry guns and use physical force to get what they want while Gates uses his brains, skills and high-tech gadgets to achieve his goals. For example, he figures out one clue using a tobacco pipe found hidden in a ship buried under snow and ice at the Arctic Circle. It is a refreshing idea for an action/adventure movie in a genre that is often saturated with excessive gunplay. It is also nice to see an action movie propelled by a story and not a series of action sequences. There is a lot of problem-solving instead of relying on mindless action. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its share of exciting sequences because it does, but it doesn’t overcompensate. For example, Gates has the physical prowess to escape the aforementioned ship when Ian betrays him by blowing it up. There is a balance. Characters don’t always resort to violence. In this cat and mouse game, they have to use their wits if they are going to be successful.

At times, National Treasure wants to be a contemporary update of the Indiana Jones films. Like that character, Benjamin Gates isn’t in it for the money, but for a genuine love of history and the thrill of solving a centuries-old mystery. There is a surprisingly entertaining mix of action and humor. It doesn’t rely on too many clich├ęs of the genre and tries not to insult one’s intelligence. Nicolas Cage does a good job of conveying Gates’ passion for uncovering and protecting rare historical artifacts. He’s not merely a man of action, but a passionate student of history who gets wistful over a key line from the Declaration of Independence. This is Cage is in restrained mode as he keeps his esoteric acting flourishes to a minimum.

Justin Bartha is hacker extraordinaire, Riley Poole and he plays well off of Cage, providing comic relief with the occasional well-timed one-liner, but he wisely doesn’t act too goofy. Christopher Plummer, as always, is excellent in a small role, utilizing his theatrical training to captivate the young Gates (and us) with his story about the Freemasons’ treasure. Plummer knows when to put just the right amount of dramatic spin on a key word or phrase. He is able to take what could have been dry, exposition dialogue and make it interesting. Sean Bean plays yet another bad buy, but a very smart one despite always being one step behind Gates. He is the Belloq to Gates’ Indy, commanding vast resources, but he wants the treasure for all the wrong reasons. Jon Voight is just fine as Gates’ cantankerous father who disapproves of what he sees as his son’s foolish quest for a treasure that probably doesn’t exist.

Director Jon Turteltaub orchestrates several exciting action sequences, including car and rooftop chases, a treacherous journey into a subterranean crypt and the theft of the Declaration of Independence as an exciting heist sequence with an elegant black tie gala as the backdrop (recalling the opening sequence in the first Mission: Impossible film). It is a tense affair even though we know how it’s all going to turn out.


In 1998, Disney marketing executive Oren Aviv and his friend Charles Segars came up with the idea for a movie about a man forced to steal the Declaration of Independence in order to keep it out of the hands of men convinced that it contained a secret treasure map. They developed it with screenwriter Jim Kouf and brought it to director Jon Turteltaub and his producing partner Christina Steinberg. In 2001, Jerry Bruckheimer agreed to produce it. He had wanted to work with Turteltaub for years. Kouf spent 9-10 months researching the Declaration of Independence and the legends that surround it.

Several drafts and writers into the process, Cormac and Marianne Wibberley were brought in to think up a treasure for the characters to pursue. After doing some research, they developed a connection between the Freemasons, who were already referenced in the script, and the mythical Knights Templar. After the Wibberleys worked on the script, it went through even more hands, including Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who were brought in by Bruckheimer after their successful work on the first Pirates of the Caribbean film.

National Treasure received a critical hammering from reviewers. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and felt that it was “so silly that the Monty Python version could use the same screenplay, line for line.” USA Today gave it one-and-a-half out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “The most you can say about this boo-boo is to note its fitting mix of flaccid execution and stupefying premise. Is this really the time in history moviegoers want to see the purloined Declaration tossed around and nearly run over by cars as if it were a receipt from Taco Bell?” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “If National Treasure mattered at all, you might call it a national disgrace, but this piece of flotsam is so inconsequential that it amounts to little more than a piece of Hollywood accounting.”

Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “What is only revealed in time, as the movie plays out its exceedingly busy but uninvolving twists, is that the character of a scruffy computer nerd, played with might-as-well-enjoy-myself charm by little-known actor Justin Bartha, steals the picture from glossier players.” In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Carina Chocano wrote, “National Treasure seems part of Disney's new strategy to produce what reporters love to call ‘edgier family fare’ (i.e., movies that parents and kids whose teeth have grown in might enjoy together) so National Treasure is as doggedly hokey and ham-handed as a Disneyland ride – specifically that Indiana Jones one where the ball comes rolling at you on tracks.” The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “National Treasure does lose its way toward the end, where the climax seems to take place in either the leftover set from The Goonies or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Note to Hollywood: Huge underground wooden structures aren't that interesting anymore.”


Regardless of critical opinion at the time, I found the first National Treasure movie something of a pleasant surprise – an inoffensive action/adventure romp for the entire family that proved to be a bonafide box office hit. It also gave Cage a much-needed boost after a string of lackluster films. To be honest, he did little of merit since so it makes sense that he would sign on for a sequel. Sure enough, National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) was a commercial success thus ensuring a cushy paycheck for Cage to last a few more films.

When Benjamin Gates learns that his great-grandfather may have masterminded the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, he and his father decide to clear their ancestor’s name. To add insult to injury, his girlfriend, Abigail Chase, has kicked him out of their house and he’s now living with his dad. So, Ben enlists the help of Riley Poole to decipher a hidden code on John Wilkes Booth’s long lost diary page. The code hints at a treasure map located on one of the Statue of Liberties in existence.

Meanwhile, the Feds, led by Agent Sadusky, the same one who went after Ben in the first movie, investigate Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris), the source of the diary page. It turns out that he’s a black marketer who is also interested in the map because it will lead to the Lost City of Gold. The scope of Book of Secrets is much larger as Ben and company follows a trail of clues that takes them to Paris, London (where they break into Buckingham Palace), and Mount Rushmore. Also thrown into the mix is Ben’s mother (Helen Mirren) who helps her son decode an important clue and rekindle the romance with her estranged husband.

The cast acquits themselves just fine, playing their parts like consummate pros so that it doesn’t seem like they’re phoning it in, which is certainly the temptation for a movie like this one. To their credit, the cast looks like they are actually having fun traversing the globe looking for long lost treasure. As with the first movie, there is a good mix of American history, action and problem solving as it chugs along like the efficient Jerry Bruckheimer production that it is, complete with anonymous, workman-like direction from Jon Turteltaub. It is the kind of family entertainment that has something for pretty much everyone even if it comes across as Indiana Jones-lite. Still, it’s a pleasant enough time waster – one that you’ll probably forget soon after the credits end.


The first National Treasure movie is a throwback to an old school style of action/adventure movie fused with a treasure hunting caper story that owes more to Indiana Jones than Jason Bourne. Gates isn’t just trying to recover the treasure. He wants to restore his family’s name, which has been tarnished because of their belief in a treasure that no one thinks exists. So, there is a redemptive element that is an added bonus. If anything, National Treasure is saddled with a needlessly convoluted series of puzzles that our heroes must solve in order to uncover the treasure, but I never felt lost or didn't know what was going on, thanks in large part to the cast, in particular Cage and Bartha who sold it very well and kept things moving. This is out flat-out entertaining and engaging popcorn movie that should appeal to history buffs and action fans alike.


SOURCES

Bowles, Scott. "Bruckheimer Digs National Treasure." USA Today. February 6, 2004.

Koch, Neal. "Disney Rethinks a Staple: Family Films but Decidedly Not Rated G." The New York Times. October 19, 2004.

National Treasure Production Notes. 2004.

Olsen, Mark. "Writing Partners Get Their Days in the Sun." Los Angeles Times. November 14, 2004.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Garden State

Conceived as a semi-autobiographical labor of love by sitcom star Zach Braff, GardenState (2004) was a modestly-budgeted independent film that, thanks to word-of-mouth and Braff’s tireless self-promotion (in particular, on his blog where fans were able to interact with him), his directorial debut became something of a minor hit as twentysomethings connected with the film and its disaffected characters in a deeply personal way. It didn’t take long for the media backlash to arrive with Slate leading the charge with a rant bluntly entitled, “Why I Hate Zach Braff,” that reeked of jealous hipster envy. I have no doubt that Braff’s film is a sincere attempt on his part to articulate how he felt at a certain point in his life on celluloid. That kind of earnestness in this cynical age leaves one wide open for all sorts of crass criticism, but for those that connect with what he is trying to say, Garden State is a special film.

Andrew “Large” Largeman (Zach Braff) is an out-of-work actor living in Los Angeles and paying the bills as a waiter at a Vietnamese restaurant. He gets a phone call from his father (Ian Holm) telling that his mother has died. He heads back home to New Jersey where he hooks up with old friends, including Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), a gravedigger whose mom (Jean Smart) and her boyfriend Tim (a pre-The Big Bang Theory Jim Parsons) can speak fluent Klingon.

Large is disaffected and emotionally removed from the rest of the world thanks to a steady diet of mood suppressing pills prescribed by his psychiatrist father. In some respects, he resembles the equally disaffected Harold in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971). Large aimlessly wanders through life with no real purpose. Even when he hooks up with Mark and his friends, Large doesn’t really connect with them. He is the outside observer who watches everything. Of course, taking Ecstasy at their party probably didn’t help, either. Generally speaking, Large is shell-shocked by life, but this begins to change when he stops taking his medication and meets Samantha (Natalie Portman), an eccentric girl who is his complete opposite. While he is detached, she’s empathetic. He doesn’t talk much and she can’t stop talking. He is passive and she is very much pro-active — the Maude to his Harold, if you will.

It is the odd, personal little touches, like the sinks in the airport bathroom that go on as Large passes by each one of them, that are quirky and establish right from the get-go that this film is going to be something different. For example, when Large goes into a doctor’s office, he notices a wall absolutely covered with diplomas and degrees. So much so that there is one hanging from the ceiling. It is this example that also demonstrates Braff’s tendency to create moments that are a little too precious, like when he inserts a shot of Large’s shirt pattern blending into the wallpaper behind him for no discernible reason except that it’s supposed to visually illustrate his fucked-up mind state or something like that. However, they are thankfully few and far between and I’m willing to chalk this up to first-time directorial inexperience and an over-enthusiastic tendency to show off a little bit. As a first-time director, Braff wears his influences on his sleeve (see The Graduate), but he isn’t simply sampling them a la Quentin Tarantino. He’s integrating them into a personal story. Braff also sneaks in references to some of his previous work with a cameo by Michael Weston who appeared with him in the little-seen indie, Getting to Know You (1999).

With Garden State, Natalie Portman temporarily escaped from Star Wars hell to capitalize on the promise she showed in films like Beautiful Girls (1996) and Where the Heart Is (2000). She is completely engaging as the neurotic and chatty Sam. She seems to be channeling Diane Keaton circa Annie Hall (1977) or a young version of Ruth Gordon’s life-affirming Maude in Harold and Maude with her performance, displaying excellent comedic timing. Portman has such a radiant presence on camera and the film really comes alive whenever she’s on-screen. With Garden State, Portman also entered the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Hall of Fame. Upon closer inspection, Sam is a rather superficial character loaded with adorable, quirky affectations, but whose sole purpose is to help Large get out of existential funk and embrace life. That being said, Portman does her job really well. For all of Sam’s colorful affectations (she’s an epileptic compulsive liar), Portman is able to convey a vulnerability that is endearing.

What really saves Garden State from being too precious is the presence of Peter Sarsgaard who delivers another wonderfully low-key performance as Large’s laidback friend Mark. He makes his character’s quirks (like Mark’s investment in Desert Storm trading cards that he plans to sell one day for a lot of money) believable and grounds the film with his realistic portrayal of a guy stuck in a small-town, but who is self-aware of this fact and made peace with it. Sarsgaard brings an effortless charisma that is always interesting to watch. One moment, Mark is all easy going and then on a dime he insults his mother’s boyfriend in a casually cruel way. Mark shows these little glimpses of self-awareness throughout the film and they culminate in a fantastic throwaway line near the end of the movie that speaks volumes about his character.

Zach Braff, known mostly for his work on the goofy sitcom, Scrubs, shows his versatility and ambitious talents with Garden State (he also wrote it). Despite wearing many hats as it were, he still manages to deliver a layered performance that is thoughtful and heartfelt with a definite arc that reaches a satisfying conclusion by film’s end. Let’s face it; your enjoyment of this film will largely depend on your tolerance of Braff. He tones down his sitcom shtick to play a very different character. Large is internalized and emotionally numb from his medication that has him sleepwalking his way through life. Braff has excellent chemistry with Portman and together they make a believable couple, each with their own unique ailments, drawn to one another because they are both adrift in life.

While working as a waiter at the upscale restaurant Le Colonial in Beverly Hills and trying to make it as an actor, Zach Braff was depressed because his career had stalled. He was on the verge of moving back to New Jersey and wrote the screenplay for Garden State in 2000. For years, he had kept detailed notebooks consisting of stories he overheard from friends, personal experiences and local newspaper clippings. When it came to write the script, he integrated many of them into it. The film was originally called Large’s Ark because Braff always liked the story of Noah’s Ark and the notion of rescuing things that you really like and starting over, which he envisioned the film’s protagonist doing. He ended up changing the title to the more accessible Garden State when he realized that no one would get the original title’s meaning.

Initially, he couldn’t find anyone interesting in backing the project because the script didn’t conform to the traditional three-act structure. Braff finally got Jersey Films interested and from there he was able to go after the actors he wanted. He showed them the short films he had made in order to prove that he knew what he was doing. After meeting with the actors one-on-one they all agreed to do it. For the role of Sam, Braff had always wanted to cast someone like Natalie Portman and he finally wrote her a letter. She read it, they met for lunch and she agreed to do it. To break the ice, Braff and Peter Sarsgaard came to Portman’s university where they hung out and bonded. Portman remembers, “That’s a great way to start out because it breaks down all barriers and we kept that sort of mood on set.” To prepare for the film, Braff had her watch Harold and Maude and told her that he wanted Sam to be “a 21-year-old Ruth Gordon.”

Even with the cast in place, Braff found it hard to get financing because Garden State was a character-driven film and he was inexperienced director. All of the studios turned him down. When giving potential financiers the script, Braff also included a CD of music, populated by the likes of The Shins, Coldplay and Nick Drake that he envisioned as its soundtrack. When it came time to actually get permission to use this music, he found that each band wanted a lot of money. However, he wrote impassioned letters and approached each one with the scene where their music would be used. This technique paid off and Braff got them all to reduce their fees. Finally, Gary Gilbert, an independent financier who had made a fortune in the home-mortgage market, stepped up and agreed to provide the film’s budget, but only if Braff could get it down to $2.5 million. He was able to do this and ended up shooting Garden State around northern New Jersey over 25 days during the summer of 2003. The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival where Braff sold Garden State to Fox Searchlight and Miramax for a $5 million distribution deal.

Garden State received mostly positive reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, “This is not a perfect movie; it meanders and ambles and makes puzzling detours. But it’s smart and unconventional, with a good eye for the perfect detail.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote, “Once again Portman is a beguiling charmer, and the multifaceted Sarsgaard very nearly steals the movie. Garden State's lack of pretense makes it all the more rewarding.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and Claudia Puig wrote, “Like The Graduate, Garden State is by turns knowing and innocent, humorous and humanistic.” In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “The happy ending is somewhat conventional in comparison to all the unusual experiences that have preceded it. Still, there’s no way any viewer could fail to be depressed if Andrew and Sam didn’t make it as a for-keeps couple.

The Washington Post’s Desson Thomson called the film, “an edgy quasi-comedy, it's very funny in places, touching in others. There is a little unevenness. But for a directorial debut, it's amazingly assured.” However, in his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “But a scrupulous avoidance of any solemnity makes Garden State a bit too light for its own good. Its method of skipping from one incident to another feels scatterbrained, and promising characters are left behind in the rush.”

Garden State was initially given a limited release, but word-of-mouth, thanks in large part to Braff blogging anecdotes of making the film and interacting with people who left comments, helped expand its release. Fans traveled long distances for a chance to see it in a theater while many saw it more than once – a very unusual phenomenon in this day and age of short attention spans and expensive ticket prices. The people who loved the film really loved it and those who hated it, really hated it. Case in point: an article that surfaced on Slate two years after the film was released that not only attacked it, but Braff as well, calling him, “Hollywood’s ambassador to the nation’s cool kids—the guy who interprets youth culture for film execs and then repackages it for popular consumption.” The article instantly dates itself with sneering references to Braff’s popularity on MySpace and Garden State resembling an “overlong iPod ad with less adventuresome music choices.” The only thing that is useful about this “think piece” is that it provides a pop cultural snapshot of the Braff backlash that had reached its zenith.

Garden State is a film bursting with ideas, keen observations on life and memorable images, like when Large wakes up after a night of taking Ecstasy to see Tim in the next room getting milk for some cereal in a full-suit of knight’s armor, that make most other films look inert by comparison. The film takes us to unexpected places, like a family that lives in a boat located deep within a cavernous quarry mired in litigation. With Garden State, Braff tapped into a generation raised on the Internet and iPods and whose recreational drug of choice are prescription pills. He struck a chord with fellow twentysomethings who saw things in the film that they could relate to, that spoke to them on a personal level, which is rare for any film to be able to do, much less one made by a first-time director. Unfortunately, Braff has been unable to direct another film with several projects announced, but nothing made so far. His film career stalled after Garden State with a couple of romantic comedies that were poorly received. Hopefully, he’ll get another shot to make another personal film.


SOURCES

Blackwelder, Rob. “Braff in the Saddle.” SPLICEDwire. July 1, 2004.

Bunn, Austin. “Melancholy Baby.” New York magazine.

Hiatt, Brian. “Five Reasons Garden State Will Be A Sleeper Hit.” Entertainment Weekly. July 27, 2004.

Howard, Caroline. “Zach Braff.” People. July 28, 2004.

Levin, Josh. “Why I Hate Zach Braff.” Slate. September 22, 2006.

Lite, Jordan. “Garden Club.” New York Daily News. August 25, 2004.

“Q&A with Natalie Portman.” Phase 9.

“Q&A with Zach Braff.” Phase 9.

Stein, Joel. “Zach Braff Has A Big Laugh.” Time. July 18, 2004.

Friday, March 15, 2013

River's Edge


If a film like Sixteen Candles (1984) presents an idealized world populated by teenagers as they would like to be (beautiful, funny, smart), then River’s Edge (1986) presents them as they are (awkward, confused, apathetic). The 1980s were dominated by John Hughes’ entertaining and engaging teen films, which allowed an independent film like River’s Edge to sneak in under the radar. Written by Neal Jimenez and directed by Tim Hunter, the film was based loosely on the real-life rape and murder of 14-year-old Marcy Renee Conrad by 16-year-old Anthony Jacques Broussard in Milpitas, California in 1981. Broussard took a dozen of his high school friends to see the almost nude body over two days. During that time nobody called the police. Finally, two students stepped forward and went to the police. Broussard plead guilty and was sentenced to 25 years to life.

Accentuated by a soundtrack featuring the likes of thrash band Slayer and metal band Fates Warning, River’s Edge presents its high school protagonists with a difficult moral dilemma that tests their loyalties. The film gives no easy answers and presents a disturbing picture of disaffected youth. Hunter was no stranger to this kind of film, having cut his teeth on the surprisingly gritty Disney film, Tex (1982), an adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s young adult novel of the same name. That film was a warm-up for River’s Edge and with the help of Jimenez’s excellent screenplay, he presented another unflinching portrait of troubled teens only this time unencumbered by Disney’s standards. The result is a powerful film that has lost none of its impact over the years and serves as a sobering reminder of just how far some teenagers will go to be loyal to a tight-knit group of friends and how their environment influences how they act and behave.

Hunter wastes no time in showing the dead body, lying naked next to the man who killed her – boyfriend Samson (Daniel Roebuck). There’s nothing salacious or sensational about it as Hunter opts for a matter-of-fact reveal. What is more disturbing is that Samson doesn’t seem particularly upset or bothered by what he’s done. He goes to a convenience store to buy beer and afterwards scores some dope from Feck (Dennis Hopper), the local, eccentric drug dealer (“Check’s in the mail!”) who lives with a blow-up doll.

At school, Samson tells his tight-knit group of high school friends flat out that he killed his girlfriend Jamie (Danyi Deats), but no one believes him until he takes Matt (Keanu Reeves) and Layne (Crispin Glover) to see the body. Layne immediately feels like it’s his responsibility to protect Samson as if this was all happening in a movie (“I feel like Chuck Norris,” Layne says wistfully at one point). Matt and the rest of the group – Clarissa (Ione Skye), Tony (Josh Richman) and Maggie (Roxana Zal) – have to decide what to do. It’s a pretty simple set up and the complexity comes in the group’s various reactions to the murder and the ramifications of their subsequent actions. Layne deludes himself into thinking it’s his job to protect Samson while the others say nothing out of loyalty, but eventually Matt and Clarissa decide to do something.

What was so startling at the time of the film’s release was the lack of reaction to Jamie’s death and how unwilling her friends are to do anything about it. Clarissa is the first to object due to her friendship with the girl. She then appeals to Matt who is sweet on her, but is also a decent guy as evident from a nice scene where he helps his little sister bury a doll that was “killed” when her brother Tim (Joshua John Miller) threw it into the river.

River’s Edge is often remembered for Crispin Glover’s scene-stealing space case Layne. At first, his style of acting seems jarringly at odds with the rest of the cast (except maybe for Dennis Hopper) and the film itself, which is quite realistic. Glover delivers most of his dialogue in an exaggerated way that, at times, borders on hysterical. This approach makes sense when you realize that to Layne the murder is the most exciting thing that’s happened to him. He sees it all as some kind of exciting adventure out of a movie – hence his stylized behavior. It’s an odd choice, but Glover makes it work through sheer force of will and provides a very dark film with moments of much-needed levity.

Keanu Reeves has the thankless role of playing the “good” kid with a conscience, but manages to give it as much depth as he could at the time with a few nice moments of compassion in the scenes between Matt and his sister, while also showing a volatile side in the scenes where Matt confronts his step-father. Matt isn’t some boy scout and he fights with his mother as well as being constantly at odds with Tim.

The film’s most disturbing character is not, surprisingly, Samson, but rather Matt’s little brother Tim who is casually amoral. He thinks nothing of drowning his sister’s doll and uses his knowledge of the dead body as a way to befriend Samson in the hopes of scoring some drugs. As the film progresses, Matt develops more of a conscience while Tim loses his (if he had any at all). Joshua John Miller turns in an astonishing performance as a disturbing Samson-in-training. For a child actor, he showed incredible ability playing a character devoid of humanity. In addition to his excellent turn in River’s Edge, Miller would go on to deliver another incredible performance as an old vampire trapped in a little boy’s body in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987).

In the 1980s, Ione Skye was the anti-Molly Ringwald – a gorgeous young model-turned actress to be sure, but her choices in films were unconventional to say the least, from the offbeat teen comedy A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988) to playing the dreamgirl in the adaptation of Martin Amis’ novel The Rachel Papers (1989). She doesn’t have too much to do in River’s Edge, but does provide the initial voice of reason among her disillusioned friends.

When he did this film, Dennis Hopper was in the early stages of what would become an impressive career revival and Feck was a fantastic addition to an already varied foster of eccentric characters. His blow-up doll-loving ex-biker comes across as a fusion of his burnt-out father in Rumble Fish (1983) and a less psychotic variation of Frank in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).

Screenwriter Neal Jimenez wrote the River’s Edge for a screenwriting class at UCLA and based it loosely on the Conrad murder and friends of his from Sacramento. Despite getting a C-minus grade, he shopped the script around and was promptly turned down by every Hollywood studio. He then sent it to producers Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury in 1983. They took the script and submitted it to all the studios again. Since none of them were interested, they approached several independent companies. Hemdale, responsible for making dark, dramatic subject matter, like The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) and At Close Range (1986) into films, agreed to finance River’s Edge. In 1984, director Tim Hunter received a copy of the script, but was turned off by the low budget and the subject matter.

Hunter had co-written Over the Edge (1979) and directed Tex and wasn’t interested in making another teen movie, but he was so impressed by Jimenez’s writing that he changed his mind, which may have had something to do with life during the ‘80s: “I just remember feeling that it was a very bland period. I did feel that this script had the potential to be anarchic and shake things up a little bit.”

When Crispin Glover first read the script, he was interested in playing Samson, but Hunter wanted him to play Layne. It was Glover’s then-girlfriend, actress Michelle Meyrink, who convinced him to play Layne instead. He read the script again and realized, “there was a certain sound of the dialogue that I was familiar with and had grown up hearing and knowing.” The actor didn’t do much research for the role: “I grew up in California, so I’m familiar with the world where this story takes place and I’ve known people like Layne.”

For the role of Feck, Hunter said, “Nobody would touch the part with a ten-foot pole.” Both John Lithgow and Harry Dean Stanton were originally approached to play Feck, but they turned it down. Stanton told his good friend Dennis Hopper about it, telling him, “This is too weird for me. You should do it.” Hunter felt that Hopper seemed like typecasting, and briefly dabbled with the idea of casting Timothy Carey as Feck, but felt that his rather eccentric acting methods would be counter-productive to an independent film with very little money and time. Hopper soon became the only actor interested in the role. He sold Hunter by convincing him that Feck was a romantic, which would be a nice contrast to Glover’s theatrical take on Layne.

The role of Samson had already been cast when Hunter and his casting director read a few more actors “for insurance.” Daniel Roebuck had little professional experience and was keen to avoid being stereotyped in “ridiculous sitcom ‘fat guy’ parts.” He arrived to the audition wearing a fatigue jacket, slicked hair and hold a can of beer, which he proceeded to down as he imagined Samson would. Hunter remembers, “He came in and knocked us out right away … We were hoping that the other actor would turn us down.”

The film was made in 32 days during January and February of 1986 for $1.9 million (it went on to make $3.6 million). Hunter bucked the trend of filming his teen movie in some suburban community by going to an area outside of Los Angeles called Tujunga, which was populated by river rock houses built in the 1920s. The weather during the shoot was generally either rainy or overcast, which gives the film an atmospheric quality, a heaviness that hangs over all of the characters.

Once the film was completed, Hemdale was unable to find a major distributor and so there was no reason for them to pay for prints and advertising. It was taken to several film festivals where it received a mixed reaction. Hemdale released the film in a test engagement in Seattle where it received good reviews but lousy attendance. Russell Schwartz, President of Island Pictures, saw the film at the Mill Valley Film Festival and said, “Great film. Tough to market. I consider it a challenge.” However, the distributor was so worried about Glover’s stylized performance that they asked Hunter to dub in a line of dialogue early on in the film explaining that Layne was a speed freak. The actor said at the time, “The hand gestures and whatnot—those things just made sense to me on an instinctual level.”

God bless ‘em, Island agreed to distribute it theatrically, providing all the prints and taking the advertising risks. Schwartz felt that the film would appeal to college students and young adults. He also decided to sell the film as a commercial picture and not as an art film. He said, “I decided to go for the jugular, make it controversial.” Island chose the deliberately shocking image of the dead girl lying in the grass with the caption, “The Most Controversial Film You Will See This Year.” They were helped commercially by the success of edgy films like Blue Velvet (1986). It played to full houses in New York City and Los Angeles for three weeks before expanding to 83 theaters in 30 cities.

Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and praised Crispin Glover’s performance, calling it, “electric. He’s like a young Eric Roberts, and he carries around a constant sense of danger. Eventually, we realize the danger is born of paranoia, he is reflecting it at us with his fear.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Though its Midwestern locale and lower socioeconomic stratum give it a different setting, River's Edge shares something with Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero, a novel that is also full of directionless, drug-taking teen-age characters who are without moral moorings and left entirely to their own devices. This is as chilling to witness as it is difficult to dramatize, if only because at their centers these lives are already so empty.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Wilmington wrote, “For all its flaws and the revulsion it may induce, River's Edge has something valuable: a dark, harrowing but moral perspective.

New York magazine’s David Denby wrote, “This brilliant, messy little picture, another triumph for the independent film movement, should cause people to argue and celebrate for years – argue over how it could have been done better, celebrate that it was done at all. In recent years, American movies have followed teenagers from school to shopping mall to make-out couch, and some of these pictures have been skillful and charming. But as far as real moral interest or complexity goes, this is the only one that matters.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson wrote, “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.

River’s Edge is a refreshingly unsentimental look at teenagers that are screwed up and come from broken homes, which only makes them feel more alienated. Hunter presents a world far-removed from the feel-good films of John Hughes. This world isn’t populated with catchy pop songs from bands like Simple Minds or the Psychedelic Furs, but rather the punishing thrash of Slayer and the punk rock band Agent Orange, reflecting the tastes of its protagonists – kids that hang outside the school and smoke – stoners and metalheads. The filmmakers don’t try to explain Samson’s actions, but they do try to dig deep and present the kind of social and economic environment that could lead to it. For all of its bleak worldview, the film does offer some hope in the form of Matt and Clarissa who are able to break out of their disaffected haze and do what they feel is right. River’s Edge doesn’t leave us with any easy answers; it just presents teenagers trying to survive the best they can.



SOURCES


Geeslin, Ned. “Crispin Glover of River’s Edge Emerges as King of the Oddballs.” People. June 22, 1987.

Gehman, Geoff. “Actor from Bethlehem Gives Film Its Edge.” The Morning Call. July 12, 1987.

Harmetz, Aljean. “River’s Edge Defies Experts’ Expectations.” The New York Times. June 6, 1987.

McKenna, Kristine. “Charting the Emotional Depths of River’s Edge.” Los Angeles Times. May 23, 1987.

Spines, Christine. “An Exclusive Q&A with Crispin Glover on River’s Edge and Questioning the Status Quo.” Sundance Institute. April 11, 2012.

Sujo, Aly. "Anatomy of a 'Blank Generation'." The Globe and Mail. May 29, 1987.

Thomas, Rob. “Hey, Watch It! Tim Hunter Returns to the River’s Edge at Union South.” 77 Square. November 19, 2012.