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River of Grass: Kelly Reichardt’s Ragged Debut

The director of 'Wendy and Lucy' and 'Meek's Cutoff' began her career with a darkly comic tale of hapless outlaws.

Oscilloscope Laboratories

Not all those who wander are lost—unless you’re a character in a Kelly Reichardt film. In a career highlighted by intimate, low-budget dramas such as Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, the acclaimed director has often focused on protagonists who are traveling in search of something, and very rarely do they find what they’re seeking—if they even knew in the first place what that was. But for those only aware of Reichardt since her breakthrough 2006 indie Old Joy, the rerelease of her little-seen 1994 debut establishes that her characters’ directionless drift has been there from the start.

River of Grass, which opens in New York on Friday before making its way across the country in subsequent weeks, is very much a first feature. Full of upstart energy and clearly indebted to its influences—a little Badlands here, a dash of Godard there—this rambling dark-comedy/ironic-crime-drama bursts with ideas but doesn’t always know how to integrate them; the awkward, giddy exuberance of getting to make a movie often outpacing the execution. It’s Reichardt’s least-accomplished feature, and yet the DNA of everything that she’s done since is wrapped up in this slender, 76-minute film. The subversion of genre tenets, the emphasis on complicated protagonists, the disinterest in conventional narratives, the focus on outsiders: River of Grass is where Reichardt’s series of literal and metaphoric road movies begins. 

Set in the southern Florida of Reichardt’s childhood, a place she couldn’t wait to escape, River of Grass stars Lisa Bowman as Cozy, a married mother of two who fantasizes that someone will pull up to the house one day and take her kids so she can give adulthood a second try. Hovering around 30, Cozy craves a new life, which she finds by walking out on her family and running into Lee (Larry Fessenden, now a celebrated indie horror director), who almost hits her with his car but ends up winning her over later at a bar. He’s a shiftless loser and she has nowhere to go, so naturally they quickly develop a flirtatious rapport, which prompts him to invite her over to a friend’s house with a swimming pool. But when they get there in the middle of the night, they frighten the owner, and Cozy accidentally shoots the man with Lee’s gun. Fearful they’ve killed the guy, they go on the lam, except they don’t have any money or a clear escape plan.

That’s already more plot than the typical Reichardt film, but River of Grass (which was written by Reichardt from a story by her and Jesse Hartman) throws in a little extra: Lee randomly found the gun after Cozy’s detective father (Dick Russell) absentmindedly misplaced it, and now dear ol’ dad is on the hunt for both the gun and his missing daughter, having no idea that the disappearances are linked.

What’s most striking initially about River of Grass isn’t what’s similar to Reichardt’s subsequent films but, rather, what’s so different. For one thing, Cozy’s plaintive, candid voiceover stands in stark contrast to the filmmaker’s usual technique of leaving her characters’ inner lives intriguingly opaque. At first, it’s jarring and a bit off-putting to hear a Reichardt heroine intone so forthrightly about what she’s thinking, Cozy laying out the unhappiness she feels and the reasons why she’s attracted to the lanky, edgy Lee. And River of Grass lacks the tonal control and minimalist vibe that permeate everything from her pioneer drama Meek’s Cutoff to the slow-burn paranoia of the eco-terrorism thriller Night Moves. Plus, the film goes for laughs, a rarity in a Reichardt film. River of Grass doesn’t always do this successfully, though, settling into a middle ground between broad farce as Cozy’s father tries to track her down and genre parody as we observe this would-be Bonnie and Clyde stumble through their getaway. (How dangerous can they be if they’re too polite to bust through a highway tollgate once they realize they don’t have the necessary quarter fare?) 

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival the same year that Natural Born Killers hit theaters with its stylized, hyper-violent vision of lovers on the run, River of Grass possesses none of the flash of Oliver Stone’s film but contains its own strand of political commentary. But where NBK assaulted viewers with its message of media saturation and our collective obsession with glamorizing murder, Reichardt’s movie merely offers a wry wink, delivering a ground-level satire on the dangers of trying to emulate cinematic antiheroes. 

Lee and Cozy seem to be as in love with each other as they are with the gun Lee finds, not because they’re attracted to violence but because they latch onto the weapon’s potential to change their dead-end lives. Neither of them are criminals—in fact, they come to learn that they didn’t even hurt the pool owner—and River of Grass constantly finds sarcastic humor in the gap between their assumption of what their outlaw status means and who they actually are. When Lee ponders holding up a convenience store, he’s shocked when an actual felon storms in and sticks up the place before he can. Lee and Cozy think their life is a movie, but the movie they’re actually in keeps throwing cold water on their meager fantasies. Reichardt has famously described River of Grass as “a road movie without the road, a love story without the love, and a crime story without the crime.” In other words, it’s a genre film that ditches the genre conventions so that its protagonists are stuck with the nagging problems of everyday life, a narrative technique Reichardt has followed for the rest of her career.

The performances can sometimes be endearingly dated, the actors giving loose-limbed turns that feel akin to the slacker vibe of other early-1990s indies such as Slacker, Clerks, and Reservoir Dogs. Although it was impossible to know at the time, many pre-September 11 American independent movies now feel almost impossibly innocent, their carefree, self-referential spirit emblematic of a bygone era in which the country wasn’t at war and the economy was booming. River of Grass is no different, and in keeping with the film’s small-stakes playfulness, Bowman and Fessenden come across as lovably amateurish, playing dopey overgrown kids thrashing around in redneck Florida. An actress working as a waitress at the time Reichardt cast her, Bowman exudes a curvy, trashy sexiness that’s never been replicated in the filmmaker’s later movies. As for Fessenden, he’s got the young, wiry handsomeness of circa-1970s Keith Carradine, along with the same unpolished charm. The rest of the ensemble mostly plays scruffy local types, Reichardt not yet finding the ability to craft spot-on portrayals in just a scene or two.

Anyone going into River of Grass looking for an undiscovered masterpiece will be sorely disappointed: This is more interesting curio than sunken treasure. The muted beauty of Reichardt’s later films is here just a ragged, uncertain stab at a style, and you can feel the tentativeness from behind the camera. But as with some road trips, it doesn’t necessarily matter how you get where you’re going—just that you end up at the destination. It took more than a decade after River of Grass screened at Sundance for Reichardt to get her next feature made, as a series of short films and an aborted project with Jodie Foster eventually paved the way for Old Joy and, ultimately, one of the finest oeuvres in American independent cinema. This January, her life came full circle when the restored River of Grass premiered at Sundance—as did her exceptional new film, the triptych Certain Women starring Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, and Kristen Stewart. As an artist and storyteller, Reichardt has travelled a long ways since River of Grass. But it’s all part of the same path.

Looking for more movie recommendations? Check out the latest episode of the Grierson & Leitch podcast.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film, Grierson & Leitch. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site