River of Grass

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River of Grass

When it comes to discussing the films of Kelly Reichardt, most people tend to forget about River of Grass, her debut feature from 1994, a whole 12 years before her sophomore effort, Old Joy, would put her on many critics’ radars. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of Oscilloscope Laboratories, Sundance, UCLA Film and Television Archive, TIFF and a host of Kickstarter backers, though, Reichardt’s first film is about to reenter the cinematic landscape in a new digital restoration—and what a striking opening salvo it is, both on its own terms and in light of her later work.

Certainly, anyone expecting the social consciousness of Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves will be thrown for a loop by the purely genre-based leanings of River of Grass. It’s essentially a variation on They Live By Night, Gun Crazy, Bonnie and Clyde and other such lovers-on-the-run pictures, with a noirish mystery thread revolving around cop Jimmy Ryder (Dick Russell), the oblivious father of one of the escaped lovers, Cozy (Lisa Bowman). But the film evinces other stylistic debts that Reichardt wouldn’t pursue quite as strongly in her later films: most notably to Badlands in its voiceover narration—Cozy’s, in this case—to both support and contradict the action shown onscreen.

That is not to say that Reichardt’s debut is totally bereft of signs of the films to come. One unexpected montage in the middle of the film—of a series of album covers, all of them featuring women in romantic and/or sexually suggestive poses—hints at the more overtly feminist bent of her later work. And on a broader level, River of Grass’ vivid evocation of ennui—a mood she conjures through her use of sultry jazz music on the soundtrack and a deliberately lackadaisical pace—would find a grander historical echo in her Western Meek’s Cutoff, similarly invested in conveying characters who are lost both physically and psychologically.

That 2011 feature also connects to Reichardt’s debut in the way it toys fascinatingly with genre conventions. If Meek’s Cutoff could be seen as an anti-Western, using the genre’s tropes in defiantly subversive ways, River of Grass pulls similar tricks with crime drama and noir clichés. The two bored and disaffected lovers on the run, Cozy and Lee (Larry Fessenden), may not be really lovers at all; the incident that leads them to try to escape their Florida Everglades homes may not have actually happened the way they think it did; and Lee turns out to be as incompetent at being a criminal as former jazz musician Jimmy Ryder is at being a cop.

The key to Reichardt’s vision in River of Grass, however, lies in Cozy’s character—her voiceover narration, especially. A 30-year-old housewife who still lives with her father, she frequently gives herself over to her daydreams, imagining a life outside her dead-end environment. Reichardt doesn’t signal this with any fantasy sequences; all one needs to do is hear her dryly delivered faux-poetic musings—“Murder is thicker than water,” she says at one point—and see the cheerleader-like routines she does out of the blue to grasp her essential immaturity (one scene featuring a dreamy slow dance is especially mesmerizing). But though Reichardt maintains a deadpan distance from her and the rest of the characters, Cozy’s desperation and her subsequent excitement at getting caught up in all of this intrigue register with enough force that, toward the end, when the much less glamorous reality of her situation dawns on her, the revelation also hits us with a devastating punch.

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writer: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Larry Fessenden, Lisa Bowman, Dick Russell, Stan Kaplan, Michael Buscemi
Release Date: March 11, 2016

Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and the Village Voice in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.