River of Grass ★★★★½

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.

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