River of Grass
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Cozy, a dissatisfied housewife, meets Lee at a bar. A drink turns into a home break-in, and a gun shot sends them on the run together, thinking they've committed murder.
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★★★★½ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd
Whoa, where did this Kelly Reichardt come from? Before we've hit the three-minute mark we've seen zippy Truffaut-style still photo montages, campy, splattery murder scenes recalling John Waters, a bit of nudity and what On the Hour referred to as the corrupting influence of bebop jazz. I imagine at the time this was referred to as Tarantino-esque - it was released in the same year as Pulp Fiction - though I'm increasingly coming to think early Tarantino was just the most complete expression of a set of proudly trashy, transgressive aesthetic and narrative concerns that so many of his generation were into. If he hadn't existed, maybe his position in popular culture would have been taken by Gregg Araki, or Tom Kalin...
...or this version of Kelly Reichardt? River of Grass is her version of Badlands, a lovers-on-the-run tale about a disaffected woman and an unstable man. Also like Badlands, it's much more concerned with plot and action than the rest of its director's work, but you can still see plenty of the film-maker's developing style in there. Reichardt took a twelve-year sabbatical in between this and Old Joy, but the project that would flourish in that later film - the merging of characters and their environment - is more than apparent here. The use of voiceover and landscape footage may be inspired by Malick, but the actual images and the content of the voiceover already feels completely in keeping with her later work.
What it's about is the inescapability of American working-class life, a fatalistic worldview that's leavened here with a very uncharacteristic dose of dry humour - the ending is wilfully ridiculous - and a more jagged, pop-art sensibility. There are jazz drum solos, tricky, a-chronological editing and lots of incidental grotesquerie like a sudden montage of crime scene photos. River of Grass is unquestionably in thrall to its influences - the bright yellow suit worn by a detective might be a nod to a minor character in Blue Velvet - but it's got a lot more to offer than a catalogue of Reichardt's formative influences. Even with this director's usual pessimism rarely far from the surface, it's a blast.
★★★★ review by Arsaib Gilbert on Letterboxd
River of Grass deserves to be mentioned alongside those unique and remarkably auspicious debut features that sprung onto the American independent scene in the early to mid-nineties. A list that includes, but is not limited to, Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket, Kevin Smith's Clerks, Lodge Kerrigan's Clean, Shaven and Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight.
Written and directed by Kelly Reichardt (b. 1964), the film is an astutely rendered neo-noir that partakes in the genre's conventions in order to cunningly subvert them. However, unlike a number of other such films, it feels like the genuine, thoughtfully fleshed out article rather than another tired, self-conscious exercise. Reichardt, who was born and raised in Miami, has suitably set her effort in some sleepy, underdeveloped junction of Broward and Dade counties, not far from the Everglades, which, according to our protagonist's disaffected voice-over, were called "River of Grass" by the Indians.
Beautifully played by Lisa Bowman, Cozy is the least likely homemaker who just happens to be a mother of two. Constantly lost in her thoughts, seemingly resigned to fate, she eventually meets her match in a 29-year-old deadbeat (Larry Fessenden, who also edited and co-produced the film) and decides to go on the lam with him after presuming that the man she accidentally pulled the trigger on—with her crime-scene detective father's lost gun, no less—is dead.
Reichardt vividly details their excursion, which encompasses a rundown motel and miles upon miles of shabby back roads (when these outlaws do eventually decide to take the highway in order to leave the state, they can't even come up with the toll). Indelibly poetic moments include Cozy's impassive mien being flashed on by a string of street lights and, later, her sway to "I'm travelin' light"— one of numerous echoes of seventies' American cinema felt in the film. Shot on 16mm with a crew of 13—which Reinchardt deemed to be too large!—River of Grass makes good on Godard's notion that all you really need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.
★★★★★ review by Disgustipated on Letterboxd
This film by Kelly Reichardt is like a proto-mumblecore version of Bandlands. A Goddard's Breathless featuring a pair of bumbling dimwits. You could call this American New Stupid cinema.
This is the story of a woman whose life went too fast and she never quite caught up with it. Surrounded by a husband and three kids, she does cartwheels and daydreams in her yard.
And then there is a man whose life went so slow he is thirty going on fifthteen. He still lives in his grandmother's house and his best mate sneaks in through his bedroom window just to hang out after dark.
The River of Grass as we learn from the woman's almost affectless, slightly dazed narration is what the Native American's call the Everglades. You can't live on a river of grass and you sure can't move real fast through it. But this is the Florida that our two characters inhabit, the part that only tourists come to by mistake.
And so it is with this backdrop of a decaying, hot and seedy Florida that our characters are brought together by a single pistol shot that hurtles them on an outlaw trajectory. Ultimately, this odyssey would take them not very far at all, nor would it have much in the way of consequence either. But there is plenty of mumbling to be had inbetween.
The legacy of poor parenting when applied to a mind that would be inert at the best times is a theme that hits a number of beats throughout this film. The recollection of childhood memories flitter in out like moths attracted to the light behind an opening and closing screen door that bangs shut like a snare drum.
I liked it in all of its meandering glory. If I have made the director sound unsympathetic towards her characters then that is not quite true, and it is not without humour. You can see this same stance towards her characters in Certain Women twenty odd years later.
Oh yeh, and the woman's middle aged father plays the drums and lets loose with some cool jazz solos. So thats kind of cool.
★★★★ review by Kurdt on Letterboxd
Reichardt would go on to explore similar themes of lost souls, poverty and the coalescing of humans and landscapes in her later work perhaps a little more astutely, but I really like the grungy, dirty aesthetic here. As others have said, it’s like a failed Badlands. Not ‘failed’ because the film is bad, but because the characters are a little dim and can’t even pull off a run from the law correctly. In fact they don’t even kill anyone. In a lot of ways the two protagonists want to live out their life of crime movie fantasy to escape lives they’re not happy with anyway. Despair permeates throughout, but there’s not a sadness over a particular thing. These characters don’t really know any other lives, and they’ve never expected anything more. But there’s a palpable air of knowing there’s something more out there, but with no idea how to get it. It’s not a totally serious film, and like most of Reichardt’s work not much actually happens in terms of plot, but she has this knack of capturing people perfectly even when they’re monosyllabic and enigmatic. Her work is, in a way, quite expressionistic with the way characters and the surrounding topography play off each other. Much like the man vs nature debate that frames Old Joy, here the juxtapositions between dilapidated houses and incongruous palm trees mould together to form a world that promises one thing, but in truth delivers something much sadder. Cozy and Lee are much like the palm trees that reside not by the beach but weird outliers next to main roads - a symbol of idealistic dreams stuck in completely the wrong place.
★★★★½ review by Jack Keane on Letterboxd
"Once, I calculated how many hours old I was, and then estimated how many more hours there were to go. On another day, I made a list of every person I had ever known. I wondered if any of these people knew each other, and if there was any chance that they were all together now, having a party or swimming in a pool. Then I wondered if there was any other person on this planet as lonely as me."
Kelly Reichardt's debut, River of Grass, is something akin to what it would be like if you took every entry ever made in the well-worn "killer-couple-go-on-the-run-through-America" sub-genre - i.e. Badlands or Bonnie and Clyde or Wild At Heart or Natural Born Killers, etc - and stripped away any trace of toxic romanticism, did away with any and all cat-and-mouse thrills, had no actual crimes be committed in the first place, and had all of the characters be aimless, meandering, clueless idiots who all have no idea what the hell they're doing at any given moment, making one stupid decision after another after another, thinking they're living their own personal pulp crime fiction narratives, but constantly getting crushed like a bug by the unforgivingly monotonous unimportance that is the reality of their lives, and all of life in general.
Basically, Kelly Reichardt made in the 90's the exact sort of movie that Jeremy Saulnier makes nowadays with his "Inept Protagonist Trilogy", by way of Blue Ruin and Green Room.
(Hell, the car the hapless criminal couple drives in River of Grass is a blue car that's pretty darn similar to the eponymous blue ruin of the above-mentioned Saulnier flick.)
All in all, River of Grass is an assured, confidently envisioned, expertly executed, utterly unique, exceptionally esoteric, and just plain excellent first feature for Reichardt (who is now 2 for 2 in the films of hers that I've so far seen that I've also thought were great).
I'm disappointed in the film's lack of kitten from the film's own poster.
WHERE'S MY CUTE POSTER KITTY, GODDAMMIT?!
Reichardt not only beat Saulnier to the punch with her "inept protagonist crime movie", but she also beat Alejandro González Iñárritu - and Birdman - to the punch by having River of Grass have an all-jazz-drums soundtrack.
(Hot-damn, this woman never ceases to amaze!)
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