River of Grass

River of Grass ★★★

Kelly Reichardt’s first feature is like her own spin on Barbara Loden’s Wanda (with some echoes of Malick’s Badlands), and while it doesn’t reach the heights of either of those films, I think any reasonable person would have sat up and taken notice when it debuted in 1994. The narrative voice is confident and assertive, weaving three lives—a bored housewife, a clumsy policeman and a greasy wastrel—with careful attention to each character’s situation and circumstances. She does not make the connections between them immediately apparent, opting to draw out these characters from their stagnant existences with glimpses of their day-to-day rituals before having them intersect to produce the antithetical thriller that graces the film’s latter half. Some of the said intersections are admittedly a little writerly, like the symbolic gun that repeatedly passes hands and causes a lot of the grief and confusion these characters feel. In that sense, the film feels more artificially “assembled” than Reichardt’s later works, and thus less compelling on an emotional scale. The groundwork for her particular strand of geographic ennui is there, but the execution is not as assured—and that’s to be expected. One must appreciate that she had a starting point that she could use to mark her growth, and with a film like Certain Women on the horizon, you can feel excited at where this all led to. The seeds had been sown all the way back in 1994.

In the end, what I liked most about this one was the unwavering attention to detail, like the fact that Cozy and Lee spend much of the film walking around barefoot because they left their shoes at the pool and don’t have the means to get new ones (though Lee does steal a pair of his mom’s sandals for Cozy, which only solves half his problem since he’s never able to find another pair for himself). And then there’s the very Loden-esque wig that Lee gets for Cozy, which seems to connect the film to Wanda more implicitly—only for Cozy to take off the wig in the last act to show that the endings of these two films are certainly not similar. While both heroines end their films seeming to accept the lives that Fate has arranged for them, Reichardt’s character realizes much sooner that the man who’s been tugging her along for the ride is not going to give her what she desires. And instead of waiting for things to fall away naturally, she takes decisive action. It still resonates 25 years on.

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