River of Grass

River of Grass ★★★½

Kelly Reichardt’s debut feature, River of Grass, is not in itself a remarkable film, but nonetheless holds intrigue for what it establishes (and fails to establish) about the director in her first effort. In abstract the film seems to be little more than “Reichardt does Malick,” and indeed from the film’s opening scene it seems Reichardt is attempting to mold herself to that style such that, by the end of the film she can begin to differentiate. The results are, predictably, mixed. Her protagonist does not hold the imaginative nature of Malick’s Holly, and the filmmaking, though skillful, does not attain a Malick level of reverence for the profundity of nature. Then again, very few films or filmmakers do. River of Grass for its part gradually finds its voice as an ironic take on Badlands. They are killers on the run, but it turns out they didn’t kill anyone. They are on the run, but it turns out they’ve hardly run anywhere other than a few miles north. The characters feel the same chronic boredom, the same need for adventure as those in Badlands, but they face a different sort of Gen X nihilism, the sense that there is no escape, that adventure, even with a gun, is purely imaginary in 1990s Florida. Malick’s film pointed its commentary at the nature of cinema, Reichardt’s is more concerned with the irony of life. In truth, Badlands is so supreme that it encompasses both notions, but we can see what Reichardt is driving at.

And to some extent, we can acknowledge that Reichardt does gradually find her voice in the depths of this homage. The film incrementally finds a sort of quirky, dry humor with great subtlety. Awkward close ups to punctuate scenes, dry silences in the establishing shots, subtle cut aways, and a detached malaise quality permeating everything the film frames. We are reminded, as some of the commenters mentioned, in particular of Jim Jarmusch, and surely he is the other primary influence here. But Reichardt is perhaps, miraculously, even more neurotic and dry than Jarmusch, and there is something even more alienated in her images. As for the photography, it gradually too finds its voice with simple compositions frequently framing unique dichotomies juxtaposing the constructed world with the natural one. Free ways are framed by vast blue skies. People walk barefoot through convenient stores. Cars line the river of grass. Reichardt feels a sadness about this, but it seems in this effort she isn’t quite ready to say it earnestly.

Though amateur, the film is actually more ambitious than the later Old Joy, incorporating more characters, settings, scene styles, and so on. All of it is done with a certain sense of experimentation, Reichardt still not sure just what type of filmmaker she intended to be. As such River of Grass has been mostly forgotten, only recently was the last remaining print restored for posterity. I was able to see a screening of it introduced by Reichardt in promotion for her upcoming film. She spoke for all of thirty seconds and offered no real insights into the picture. Still, it came as no surprise that she is someone keen to let the film do the talking. She is ultimately perhaps an inconsistent filmmaker in my experience, but at her best she captures the full possibilities of the indie film in a manner rarely rivaled by her peers. That manifests of course best in Old Joy, a film that, with time, only ever seems to climb higher up my all time list. It is easy to see how River of Grass could evolve into that film, but it is also easy to forget this one once you’ve seen Old Joy.

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