River of Grass

River of Grass ★★★

"It's funny how a single day could drag and drag, while entire years just flew by in a flash."

In time I would like to complete the filmography of the singular American writer/director Kelly Reichardt, but I've seen a couple of her works so let's make it three with a viewing of her debut feature River of Grass, Sundance and Spirit Award nominee of the mid-90s.

Set in and around the Florida Everglades (the Native American name of which translates to the film's title), we meet Cozy (Lisa Bowman), a thirty-something housewife disillusioned by the humdrum role of wife and mother to three young children. She narrates the film from a nearly omniscient point. Out one night at a bar and desperate for a spark, she meets extrovert Lee (Larry Fessenden) who nearly hits her with his car, but soon drinks and talks with her. On a lark and with a little liquid inspiration, they break into the backyard of a home to get into a pool. Showoff but immature Lee shows Cozy a gun he found -- he doesn't know it's related to a crime that her father Jimmy (Dick Russell) is trying to solve -- but it goes off when the homeowner comes to confront them. The couple runs, as the shot went towards him and they're sure they killed someone, but instead they aimlessly wander with no sense of direction and no means by which to escape, and are stuck in the same county.

Another twist on the Bonnie & Clyde adventure and a hunt from the feds? Not quite, as the young filmmaker Reichardt described the story as a "road movie without the road, a love story without the love, and a crime story without the crime." I rather like that.

I can't help but compare this film to some of the earlier work of Jim Jarmusch, but the humour is even sneakier and perhaps not meant for us to see. Regardless, it's no comedy, but a bleak drama. Largely River of Grass happens to begin a theme seen in many of Reichardt's later stories, one about people (often poor, often resourceless) trying to get out of a situation or a place but without the wherewithal or hope to do so.

This is the classic example of a fantastic idea and story that suffers from amateur acting and incomplete dialogue. It's hard to criticize the screenplay much, because I love the concept, and I devour small films like this with a barely-there idea which goes for it anyway. On a shoestring budget and a wing and a prayer go Reichardt and her miniscule crew of cinematographer Jim Denault and editor Larry Fessenden (yes, the lead actor), and it's commendable what they achieve with limited resources themselves. Reichardt is known for movies where you're dropped right in the middle of a scenario, often without explanation, and quickly you just catch up with the characters as you probably don't have a complicated web of plots to untangle. At just 76 minutes, River of Grass is suddenly two-thirds into the film where you might wonder what's left. But I love little gambles like this.

To be fair, though the performance and occasional narration of Bowman is easily the standout, nearly every other actor seems fresh from the unemployment line in Miami. That is, they're amateur and close to bad, especially the ones in brief supporting roles. Part of that has to be blamed a little on some fragmented dialogue that goes nowhere, and some choppy editing that leads to a strange pacing and no time for those actors to do much. Well, also Reichardt probably just found them on the street.

But damnit, the idea beyond the story is so compelling to me, and though Reichardt got way better at crafting narratives like this very shortly, I have to praise her debut film for its singular vision, ambling and meandering as it is. Picture something like Wild at Heart but with literally zero sensationalism or action -- and yet just as much depth, an intimate and powerful mise en scene, and a knockout of an ending which I fuckin loved -- and you've got River of Grass in a nutshell.

Added to Kelly Reichardt ranked.

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