Keanu Reeves’ Best Performance Is Also One of His Earliest

Keanu Reeves hit a home run with this emotionally complex breakout role.

Of his many iconic performances, Keanu Reeves’ best comes from the start of his career, in a brooding teenage drama called River’s Edge. After landing a few supporting roles (Youngblood, Flying), Reeves nabbed himself a starring role alongside a magnetic Crispin Glover as a teenager reeling from the brutal murder of a classmate. When John (Daniel Roebuck) confides in his friends that he murdered his girlfriend (Danyi Deats), the alienated and existentially-depressed group of teens attempt to make sense of the entirely senseless act. Credit is often given to Glover, whose performance as Layne is admittedly mesmerizing and esoteric, but Keanu’s efforts are equally deserving of praise, even if more reserved than Glover’s.

Long before he was stacking bodies like poker chips in the increasingly fantastic John Wick franchise, even before he broke through into the action genre with the adrenaline-packed Point Break, Reeves gave his strongest performance to date. As Matt, Reeves showcases a fascinating psychological complexity, encapsulating an entire generation’s worth of explosive and suffocating angst. Nearly forty years later, his acting in the film remains criminally underrated, overlooked too often in favor of many of his bigger, more explosive roles.

‘River’s Edge’ is a Fascinating Dark Teen Drama

River’s Edge is one of the darkest coming-of-age films ever made. It’s an examination of despair and existential anguish in which its characters, even while recognizing the murder of one of their friends, ultimately have little to feel about anything. They’re too aimless and alienated, too disconnected from the world they’re living in to actually empathize with the deceased in any healthy way.

Reeves lends to his character a torturing sense of morality that steers him further and further from his group of friends. It being his first major role (albeit in an independent drama too edgy to be widely screened) feels difficult to believe. The actor handles the meaty subject matter like a seasoned veteran, hiding between his emotive eyes something that he doesn’t initially let on until the latter half of the picture.

In much of the film, Reeves carries himself with the sort of stoned coolness that’s like a depressive variation of his Bill & Ted character. He’s numbed by his generational apathy and his shared disconnect from the world, but an inexorable pain remains untreated. When questioned by the police about the dead body, Matt shuffles in his seat, visibly agitated by the interrogation and feeding them nothing but crumbs. He’s asked what he was thinking when looking at the corpse, and suddenly he snaps, “I don’t know, okay? You want me to make something up?” Keanu plays it with a sort of desperation that makes it believable. He doesn’t know what he was thinking, and that tortures him. If he was initially feeling disconnected to his dead friend, it’s a disconnection that disturbs him.

River’s Edge works because of its mirrored morality of Matt and Layne (Glover) and because of the mirrored performances by its two leads. Glover is theatrical to the point of excess, exuding all the cartoonish body language and exaggerated line delivery that makes his character an unstoppable force. Reeves is much more nuanced, rightfully playing the character with a sort of restraint that makes the moral conflict of his character more believable.

Keanu Reeves is the Emotional Core of ‘River’s Edge’

The overwhelming darkness of River’s Edge comes in part from the killing of one teenager by another, of course. But it becomes much darker when it presents the general apathy that its characters feel in the face of such a tragic crime. When the teens actually see the body for the first time, Mike’s the only one clearly disturbed by the sight. Layne initially treats it as a joke, prodding the corpse with a stick, finding it unresponsive, and treating it with the same reverence he would show an act of God. Matt is immediately haunted by the sight. He sits in class, antsy and agitated, his mind flashing back to the image of the body.

Later, when talking to his friend Clarissa (Ione Skye Leitch), Matt can’t help but talk about seeing the body. “It affected me. Didn’t it affect you?” he asks vulnerably. People talk a lot about the crime, but Matt’s really the only one that seems legitimately haunted by it.

He’s also protective of his little sister (Tammy Smith), whose beloved doll gets drowned by their brother Tim (Joshua John Miller). He helps her give the doll a proper funeral, burying it in the yard and marking its grave in mourning. It’s a plot point that reinforces the concept of Matt’s morality: doing the right thing, being emotionally receptive to others, and standing up against senseless acts of cruelty makes a difference in the world.

Watching River’s Edge in the 21st century, when Keanu Reeves has become adored on what’s practically a unanimous level for being the Nicest Guy in Hollywood, it feels particularly characteristic for his character to be the only one with a somewhat functioning moral compass. Layne and Matt act as the opposing poles of the film’s dark moral code; Layne is utterly unaffected by the murder. If anything, he’s fascinated by the implications that it poses, the excitement that attempting to cover it up brings into their lives. Matt, on the other hand, grapples with a flawed concept of loyalty by pondering whether or not to turn John in for his crime.

Layne ascends into a manic fit, with his increasingly unstable behavior becoming a danger to himself and others. Meanwhile, Matt continues his path towards depression and despair, lost in the senselessness of the life he’s living. Reeves ties it all together, playing the character as somebody who’s simultaneously disturbed by violence and numbed from years of incurable apathy.

The Themes of ‘River’s Edge’ Age Surprisingly Well

Because of its universal themes of existential dread, River’s Edge holds up decades later. Neal Jimenez’s script pops with lively dialogue that oozes malaise and pitch-black humor. It has an ear for the lingo of ‘80s disaffected youth, and it has a general understanding of the cyclical nature of spiritual and moral emptiness.

The teens, products of hopeless and downtrodden parents, have little going for them. They’ve got each other, the drugs and alcohol they consume en masse, and Feck (Dennis Hopper), an unstable middle-aged man with a blowup sex doll for a wife and a violent history of his own. Their parents, if they’re even around, give little aid to any psychological problems their children might be facing. They, too, are too disconnected to care very much. They pass down their despair and apathy with no cure.

At home, Matt’s mother (Constance Forslund) accuses him of stealing her weed and hysterically condemns her parental duties. (“I give up on this mother bullshit,” she wails). She’s overwhelmed and burdened by being a mother. She has little to give her children, and they turn to crime, misery, and drug use.

Layne, meanwhile, gives context to his irrational support of John and his crime. He laments on 1980s America having “no sense of pride, no sense of loyalty, no sense of nothin’, man,” and treats his supporting John as if it’s a religious duty.

The despair at the core of River’s Edge, presented as an allegory, remains as relevant as ever. It exists as an existential dread that can lead those it impacts in one of two directions: towards the light or the dark. It’s a rallying cry for choosing empathy over indifference, kindness and protection over cruelty. The darkness is often impenetrable, like a thick, sticky pit of tar from which there’s no escape, and it leads to becoming disconnected one another.

River’s Edge is one of the great teen films because of its unflinching look at the difficulties of coming to age in a disconnected world. In the digital age, where genuine connection is not without its inherent complications, it still feels fresh and relevant. Keanu Reeves’ character — and his complex performance —is one of the most crucial pieces of the film. Dozens of films later, it still remains his finest to date. It’s a crucial encapsulation of an entire generation’s malaise, a precarious balancing act between doing the right thing and plummeting into a pit of misery.