River of Grass (1994)

Rates: * * * *

Why Did I Watch It? From the classic film club watch list.

Cast, crew, etc.

Trailer

Cozy lives on the fringes somewhere in Southern Florida. At the start of the film we get her personal history in a series of still image snapshots; indifferent father, average childhood, random memories. Now she is an unhappy single parent, living in a cramped house and and having to hike across a paddock to get to town.

Lee looks like trashbag Jack Nicholson circa ‘The Shining’, and still lives with his mother. The random discovery of a lost handgun is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to him, even though he has no idea what to do with it. His best friend pretends to be paralysed.

These two wayward souls meet at a bar, sortof hookup, sortof shoot someone, and hit the road. But ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ this is not.

You can see indy favourite Kelly Reichardt‘s future films fermenting in this, her first feature. She has always been most interested in characters marginalised by modern existance, and here she has produced an impressionistic portrait of two of these.

These are aimless lives; in a world where everyone is constantly powering towards their next checkpoint, these two drift with the current. There is a striking sequence set under a freeway overpass; while everyone else zips by overhead, Cozy and Lee stand around in the weeds on some deadend road. A simple visual summary of their oursider status.

The film has a spare look, and an ultra lean run time. While it is not plotty, it is economical, and sketches out its characters and their environment with graceful minimalism. It is also suprisingly funny. Lee’s botched attempts to use his gun to commit actual crime is deadpan comedy straight out of a Jarmusch film; the robbery of his mother’s house involves stealing several boxes of old records, rather than something more conventionally valuable, and his plans to stick up a convenience store are foiled by another, more confident, criminal.

Ultimately, his inept inability to accomplish anything turns Cozy against him, and this leads to a surprise final scene (which I won’t spoil). But the film started with Cozy, and so it should end with her. This is her story. And the very American way she finds to grasp a tiny sliver of control, and vent her frustrations, is a dark ending to a funny, distinctive and very accomplished debut.

Reichardt is one of the most original and intelligent film makers currently working. After this movie, she spent a long time struggling to get finance together for another feature, it would be 12 years before ‘Old Joy’, but it is exciting to think that she now has an established reputation and the opportunity to make films on a regular basis. I can’t wait for ‘First Cow’, and for all of her future movies.

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