River of Grass

River of Grass ★★★★

River of Grass is presented as a quasi-first person tale, narrated by an unreliable voiceover. detailing an adventure not always duplicated on the screen. Though we don't know it at first, the disconnect begins immediately, when Cozy (Lisa Donaldson) tells us that the man with whom she will run away (Larry Fessenden as Lee Ray Harold) is just as lonely as she, spinning connective tissue between the two and their experiences before we've even met Lee.

Over the course of the film, however, we see almost no connection between Cozy and Lee. They get along, share space and, when necessary, beds, but they're fully clothed when they do and, when they're sober, there isn't a thing that draws them together, not even a flirtation. We never see them so much as kiss, a reality which intentionally undermines Cozy's internal tale that positions the duo as lovers on the run, bound to one another by a shared misdeed and headed into a shared murky future.

Even before they end up sharing a car and hotel room, Cozy and Lee do have things in common. They're both poor and nearing thirty, and neither is either settled in or satisfied by the life they lead. But from here, their situations diverge. Lee lives in the home in which he was brought up, sharing a roof with his oft-married mother and a grandmother who, while she disapproves of him, also offers him a degree of practical care, making sure he's up in the morning and checking in on him in ways his mother never seems to have done. Despite setting his alarm for 8am every day, however, Lee doesn't appear to have either a job or much of an existence outside of his home, apart from his car, his one friend, and a confident dislike of most things that might require him to disrupt his mind numbing but comfortable existence.

Cozy, on the other hand, married a man she'd never so much as kissed the moment they graduated high school, and has lived with him ever since, in a crime scene house they bought, cheap, in a city auction. They have three young kids, because motherhood is what Cozy is supposed to do, despite having no affinity for the position or affection for any of the children, and no commitment to them beyond a vague intent to keep them alive. Cozy is a dreamer, spending her time adding up the minutes in her life (past and future), pretending to be a gymnast, spinning under the sun until she gets dizzy, and lying on the lawn, talking to her cop father.

Cozy is as aimless as Lee, but she's also trapped in her life by layers of feminine obligations, whereas Lee is taken care of by the women in his life, people who make sure that he has no obligation to anyone. In some ways, it's Lee's freedom that leaves him so lost — he is under no obligation to do anything and, without that external pressure, can't bring himself to take a step toward a new path, regardless of where it leads. For Cozy to leave her life behind is dramatic and monumental; for Lee, it's taking a step he should have taken years earlier, an opportunity to become the man he's always imagined he must be, should circumstances change.

In a very real way, then, their entire adventure is, to Lee, a chance to try on outlaw identities, none of which he finds himself capable of wearing. He's a coward as a holdup man, a clumsy sneak-thief, and so weighed down by the society against which he vaguely pretends to rebel that he finds himself unable to run through a tollbooth that demands a quarter in exchange for passage.

For Cozy, however, it is simply her new life, which is perhaps why she romanticizes it so in her voiceover. To hear her tell it, Cozy is a murderer on the run, with a man who reminds her to keep her face hidden, because she's both wanted and known. And she tells us about watching her life play out on television, as if she and Lee were dangerous criminals rather than screwups who accidentally fired a gun in the direction of a stranger, and then left their shoes and Cozy's purse behind.

The understated way in which the stakes of River of Grass rise is sneaky and powerful, as we gradually realize that it's only Cozy who is trying to assess her lives, past and present; as we begin to see how severely her path is diverging from that of her companion, who knows that it's all really just a game of make-believe. Except, for Cozy, it's not, something of which Lee becomes aware only when the information is useless to him; only when it's too late for him to correct the errors he's made; too late for him to go home to his comfortable, safe life, and allow Cozy to carve out her own path for the first time.

52 Films by Women: 2023 | 2022 | watchlist

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