River of Grass

River of Grass ★★★★

I've seen a lot of very low budget independent films that left me absolutely underwhelmed. In fact, I've seen so many of them that I just kind of assume that they won't be my cup of tea. Many of the ones I've witnessed are aimless, meandering through whatever backdrop the filmmaker can get on the cheap with whatever cast the filmmaker can get on the cheap (or possibly for free) and taking forever to arrive at some sort of point via grimy, handheld cinematography. In short: back in the day when I was seeking out any film that I felt I was supposed to have seen, I saw a LOT of independent films that felt like a huge waste of time. I cannot remember any of them distinctly enough to cite them as an example either because they were that forgettable or because none of them actually fit these criteria and I have unconsciously fabricated these alleged films and used these fictitious memories as an excuse to avoid low budget films.

Of course, the low budget independent films that make a lasting impression avoid these issues entirely. "River of Grass" is one such film. It's very low key, and it does kind of meander through its cheap Florida backdrop following two performers I have never seen or heard of before. So it does check off many of the boxes that I just bitched about...but it's what first-time filmmaker Kelly Reichardt DOES with these unpromising components that makes all the difference.

Reichardt uses impressive but un-showy camera work that manages to find and accentuate the beauty of the film's mundane locations. Reichardt uses the main character's voiceover to instantly grab our attention and to build a specific time, place and mood that I found immediately compelling. I was hooked by the end of the first scene, interested in the bored housewife, Cozy, played by Lisa Donaldson. I quickly grew fond of Larry Fassenden's shiftless layabout, Lee Ray Harold, who seems to live with his grandmother as well, not to mention Cozy's detective father (Dick Russell) who might actually be my favorite character.

Cozy's father loses his gun and a friend of Lee Ray's (who looks suspiciously like Steve Buscemi and whose name is Michael Buscemi...which solves that mystery, I suppose) finds the gun and brings it to Lee Ray's house. He doesn't know what to do with the gun and leaves it for Lee Ray to sell. Lee Ray drives to another town where he hopes to sell the gun, and nearly runs over Cozy. Cozy finds him at a bar, starts a conversation with them, and from there their lives are intertwined as they go on the most pathetic crime spree you can imagine.

"River of Grass" weaves an atmosphere of boredom and ennui that is nonetheless gripping somehow. I can't pinpoint how Reichardt manages this. I figured this would be something I would start, get about ten minutes into, and then stop...never returning to finish it. But to my great surprise, "River of Grass" sucked me in and kept me spellbound with its lack of incidents and characters who should be completely pathetic but aren't because of Reichardt's obvious and infectious affection toward them. Not much happens in "River of Grass", and I was invested in all of it. Again, I can't exactly explain why, but I think it has to do with Reichardt's ability to weave a hypnotic atmosphere that is instantly able to reconfigure the expectations and metabolism of an audience to the wave length that she's operating on. I've seen plenty of filmmakers fail at this particular gambit, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well Reichardt achieved this modest goal that is harder than it clearly seems.

I visited this film because I loved Reichardt's recent "First Cow" and because it was on the Criterion Channel. I'd highly recommend everyone else do the same. Based on the strength of these films, I need to watch everything else she has done. Reichardt clearly has a tremendous gift for telling low key, shaggy stories in an innately compelling fashion.

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