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Sleeper of the Week: Kelly Reichardt’s ‘River of Grass’

Sleeper of the Week: Kelly Reichardt's 'River of Grass'

Sleeper of the Week takes a film that only few critics have seen and shines some light on it.

River of Grass
Dir: Kelly Reichardt
Criticwire Average: —

With films like “Wendy and Lucy,” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” and the most recent “Certain Women,” Kelly Reichardt has made a name for herself as one American independent cinema’s finest directors, but while many think her career began with 2006’s “Old Joy,” it actually began with a modest debut feature all the way back in 1994. Premiering in Sundance and then receiving a very limited release the next year, “River of Grass,” follows Cozy (Lisa Bowman), a dissatisfied housewife, who gets dressed u to go to a bar one night and almost gets run over by a guy named Lee (Larry Fessenden). After he buys her a drink inside, Lee convinces her to break into a friend’s swimming pool and play with his gun, but when the pool owner comes out, the gun goes off, and Lee and Cozy take off thinking they’ve committed murder. Though it takes obvious cues from “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Badlands,” “River of Grass” doesn’t quite follow the archetypal story: Cozy and Lee don’t have any sort of romantic attraction and they didn’t even really commit the crime, but it’s much more interested in the quotidian, sleazy details of their adventure. Not quite like the mood pieces she would later make, “River of Grass” has a young filmmaker’s energy and Oscilloscope Laboratories’ essential restoration makes this a must-see film for fans of American cinema period.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Melissa Anderson, Village Voice

“I wondered if there was anyone in the world as lonely as me,” ponders Cozy (Lisa Bowman), a downcast mom of two kids, in voiceover. This resident of south Florida — Reichardt’s own home turf — will find a soul mate of sorts, Lee (Larry Fessenden, the snaggletoothed filmmaker and actor), in a bar in Broward County, the territory immediately to her north. Insisting that they go for a wee-hour dip in a stranger’s pool, shiftless charmer Lee promises adventure, a tonic for Cozy, who spends her days distractedly tipping Coke into her cherubic toddler’s bottle and improvising a gymnastics floor routine on her cruddy living-room carpet. When a gun — property of Cozy’s jazz-drumming detective pop (Dick Russell, one of several perfectly cast nonprofessionals) — is fired during their swim, the two hide out in a $20-a-night pit, passing joints with their feet. Reichardt pays clear homage to “Breathless” and “Badlands,” but her movie, the title of which is a local name for the Everglades, operates in its own ecosystem, teeming with the droll, shrewd observations about downwardly mobile life explored more solemnly in Reichardt’s next two films, “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy.” Read more.

Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club

Reichardt has Bowman — a compellingly blunt screen presence who’s barely acted since — narrate the movie in a folksy whisper that’s clearly meant to echo Sissy Spacek’s “Badlands” voiceover, and “River Of Grass” initially seems to belong to the same outlaw-lovers-on-the-lam genre. Cozy and Lee never develop any sort of romantic or even sexual attraction, though, and they haven’t actually committed any serious crime (which Lee soon discovers, choosing not to tell Cozy in order to prolong their adventure). Reichardt subverts expectations at every turn, while simultaneously painting a vivid portrait of southern Florida (the title refers to the Everglades, and the film goes back and forth between Broward and Dade County) in all its sun-drenched seediness. She gets an invaluable assist from Fessenden, a notable director in his own right (“Wendigo,” “The Last Winter”); he co-edited “River Of Grass” in addition to co-starring, and his jumpier sensibility, both onscreen and off, blends with Reichardt’s observational instincts in fascinating ways. If one were to watch this jagged, restless movie with no knowledge of who made it, guessing that it sprung from the same mind that created “Old Joy” or “Meek’s Cutoff” would be impossible. Intuiting that this gifted novice filmmaker would go on to bigger and better things, however, would be child’s play. Read more.

Ella Taylor, NPR

Reichardt is, in the best sense, crafty that way, and it doesn’t disparage any of her lovely mood pieces to say that in comparison, her 1994 feature debut, “River of Grass” — restored in vibrant color for a fresh release this week — moves like an express train. Not that it clips along exactly, even with a jazz soundtrack and frantic drum solos tracking a rumpled couple on the lam across the Florida Everglades, where Reichardt grew up. But before we get to a downbeat rampage across that landscape of dingy malls, scrappy palm trees and cheesy motels, meet Cozy (Lisa Bowman), a putative homemaker rotting away in a seedy Broward County suburb. Cozy has a sweet face and two babies with an indistinctly drawn husband — it would be stretching things to call the couple high-school sweethearts. But the mother-child bonding instinct is spectacularly missing from her makeup, and she spends her days dreaming of glamorous destinies in the performing arts…”River of Grass” is very funny, but in a more somber key it also test-drives what will become Reichardt’s specialty: the transformation of cheerless wastelands into backdrops for journeys of the parched soul. Her subsequent films are sadder, more freighted with the pain and alienation of an America that, one way or another, has put so many of its inhabitants out on the roadside. Reichardt invariably speaks for the dispossessed, and all her films must be seen. But “River of Grass” is her vital firstborn juiced by the fresh, untidy vitality of a newbie filmmaker doffing her cap to B-movies and the French New Wave. In that film she gives life’s castaways the gift of merriment, and an ending that holds up half the sky. Read more.

Kenji Fujishima, Paste Magazine

If “Meek’s Cutoff” could be seen as an anti-Western, using the genre’s tropes in defiantly subversive ways, “River of Grass” pulls similar tricks with crime drama and noir clichés. The two bored and disaffected lovers on the run, Cozy and Lee (Larry Fessenden), may not be really lovers at all; the incident that leads them to try to escape their Florida Everglades homes may not have actually happened the way they think it did; and Lee turns out to be as incompetent at being a criminal as former jazz musician Jimmy Ryder is at being a cop. The key to Reichardt’s vision in “River of Grass,” however, lies in Cozy’s character — her voiceover narration, especially. A 30-year-old housewife who still lives with her father, she frequently gives herself over to her daydreams, imagining a life outside her dead-end environment. Reichardt doesn’t signal this with any fantasy sequences; all one needs to do is hear her dryly delivered faux-poetic musings — “Murder is thicker than water,” she says at one point — and see the cheerleader-like routines she does out of the blue to grasp her essential immaturity (one scene featuring a dreamy slow dance is especially mesmerizing). But though Reichardt maintains a deadpan distance from her and the rest of the characters, Cozy’s desperation and her subsequent excitement at getting caught up in all of this intrigue register with enough force that, toward the end, when the much less glamorous reality of her situation dawns on her, the revelation also hits us with a devastating punch. Read more.

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