I went to see "The River's Edge" the other day intending to relive memories of the Milpitas, Calif., murder story that I broke in 1981 when I was reporting for the San Jose Mercury News. As the film unfolded, however, I began to wonder if perhaps I hadn't walked into the wrong theater.
Dennis Hopper plays a dope-dealing ex-biker named Feck whose only friend is Ellie, a rubber sex doll. And then there's Tim, a 12-year-old brat who is so incredibly evil that you want to yank off his earring and send him to his room to rot for a month. The kid steals beer, abuses his little sister, beats up Feck and grabs a gun to kill his older brother.
The last thing "The River's Edge" needs is to invent more sleazy characters. Certainly the story of a group of stoned, comatose teen-agers who saw their friend's murdered corpse and failed to report it to authorities provides enough bleak, depressing material for one script.
"River's Edge" is, as they say, "loosely based" on the strangulation murder of 14-year-old Marcy Conrad by Anthony Jacques Broussard, then a 16-year-old student at Milpitas High School. After Broussard choked Marcy to death, he tossed her body in the back of his pick-up truck and dumped it in the hills.
The real story, though, followed Broussard's arrest. Acting on a tip, I interviewed numerous Milpitas High School students who told me how Broussard took them on tours to view Marcy's partially nude body. For two full days they neglected to notify police, their parents or their teachers, even though they knew that Marcy's corpse lay in the hills.
Dozens of reporters swamped the tiny town of Milpitas to write about the shredded moral fiber of the post-Vietnam generation. Is this the way American youths react to murder? Don't they have any feelings? What was possibly going through their minds?
I learned the answers by hanging out at the high school smoking area, the nearby 7-Eleven Food Store and arcade parlors. I got to know several of the students so well, in fact, that the prosecution and defense called me to testify in court. When I refused to answer their questions, a Santa Clara County Municipal Court judge convicted me on six counts of contempt of court. I was spared from going to jail at the last minute when Broussard pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.
The teen-agers told me of poking Marcy's body with a stick, ripping off a radio station patch from her jeans and covering the corpse with leaves to give the killer "a head start."
Others acknowledged that Marcy's death "bothered" their conscience. One teen broke down in tears as he recounted how visions of Marcy's corpse haunted him in class and at the dinner table. At the end of the second day, he told the school's principal at the same time another youth went to police.
Some students criticized "the snitch" who turned in Broussard. "He don't live by any code or nothing," one youth told me. "Jacques is a partner of mine. He needs help. He's gone wacko. But I wouldn't narc on him."
Just as the film "Stand By Me" portrayed with splendid results the story of four young boys on an overnight trip to find a body, "River's Edge" could have chronicled the youths' reactions with the same insight and depth. Instead, we leave the theater without really learning why these kids are the way they are.
The film wastes far too much time on Feck and Tim, who have nothing to do with the real-life story line, and only scratches the surface in an attempt to tell us what in their mixed-up middle-class upbringing led these teens to be so numb.
"River's Edge" sparkled, however, during those rare moments when it focused on the dilemma of whether to go to police.
Layne, who orchestrates the cover-up, is thrilled at the outset. "It's like a . . . movie," he says. "It's a test of our loyalty against all odds. I feel like Chuck Norris, you know."
Later, Layne complains when the killer buys him a six-pack of warm Budweiser for throwing the body in the river. "You'd think I'd at least rate a Michelob."
Layne is a high-strung "stoner" who is constantly trying to convince his friends to conceal the murder. "Jamie's dead. John's still alive. Can't you see that?" he tells them.
But at least two youths--Clarissa and Matt--have a difficult time keeping silent.
"I wish it was me who told," Clarissa tells Matt in a private moment. "I don't even care right now if you tell everybody what I said. But don't tell anybody what I said."
At which point Matt admits that he is the one who ratted. "I didn't think I'd be the only one . . . but I kept seeing her face, Clarissa. Didn't you keep seeing her face? It affected me. Didn't it affect you? She's dead and we didn't even feel anything for her."
Clarissa responded: "I cried when that guy died in 'Brian's Song.' You'd figure I'd at least be able to cry for someone I hung around with."
There's much to learn from Marcy Conrad's death--the combination of drugs, TV violence, deafening rock music, arcade games and, most of all, neglectful parents have anesthetized our children.
It's too bad "River's Edge" missed the point.