Murder is thicker than marriage.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Kelly Reichardt‘s debut feature River of Grass considering I’ve never quite been able to appreciate her films’ glacial pacing. It’s never made me hate anything of hers that I’ve seen, but it definitely had me checking out of Wendy and Lucy too often and deciding that the short story triptych construction of Certain Women perfectly suited her style. So how would her first foray go? Would we see the blueprint for what was to come? Or would it be something completely different—a jumping off point for an evolutionary path far removed? The answer proves to be a mix of both with the scale welcomingly dipped towards the latter. Her bottled road movie is still slow, but it’s also very surprising.
The script’s construction plays as a bone-dry comedy with emotionless narration, collages of exposition shots that could be mistaken for still photography, and a Schrödinger’s cat-type plot wherein Cozy Ryder’s (Lisa Bowman) reality differs from the truth because she’s either too afraid to discover what the truth is or too compelled by the potential of freedom to have it ruined. Going on the lam with a guy she just met at a bar (Larry Fessenden‘s Lee Ray Harold) jolts her awake with an electricity she hasn’t felt in years. The monotone voice used to describe her upbringing and current life as a married-too-young housewife who prays someone comes to take her children away is therefore meant to put us to sleep because living it knocked her out already.
This is the reason she puts on make-up, gets dressed up, and walks to a bar on the county line in the first place. She needed a reprieve from the doldrums regardless of what might happen. Striking up a conversation with Lee Ray was more reflexive than pre-meditative, but his instantaneous show of interest wins her over to at least share a drink. It leading to them breaking into a stranger’s backyard to swim in his pool was merely a drunken effect of their mutual desire for escape (his stemming from a sedentary life that’s forever kept him in his mother’s home despite approaching his thirtieth birthday). They’re so numb to existence that playing with a loaded gun doesn’t even faze them until it fires accidentally.
Did they kill an innocent man? Why stay and find out when they can hop the fence, start the car, and drive north to leave the state of Florida behind forever? Reichardt knows the best reason to stay is the fact that they simply cannot leave. Drawing Lee Ray as a badass with the courage to actually flee the only place he’s ever known isn’t even close to being as interesting as making him the poser we know men like him usually are. The amount of comedy that arises from this fact is infinite because he will constantly talk himself into situations for which his body can’t comply. For all the tough talk and gun waving, he probably couldn’t jaywalk without finding the nearest police officer to apologize.
Reichardt flips the generic gendered dynamic by having the man become the one with second thoughts and the woman staunchly ready to embrace her crimes and live dangerously. He’s a momma’s boy trapped within a virtual fence; she’s the under-appreciated prisoner of fate yearning to feel alive. Add a parallel subplot wherein her father (Dick Russell‘s detective Jimmy) is scratching his head as he follows their wake of miscues and roundabouts and it starts to feel like everyone is slowly moving in circles. They’re all stuck on these mediocre paths that they’ve resigned themselves to endure because they don’t have any other options. They lament Cozy’s mother and Lee Ray’s father leaving them behind without so much as a goodbye yet secretly idolize their ability to do so.
As a result we watch as the men succumb to their identities while Cozy decides she’s had enough. And why shouldn’t she? Too long she’s taken care of her father, husband, and children as though it was her duty to simply stand-by. Lee Ray may provide the opportunity to leave that all behind, but only she can truly take it. The hope is that he’ll surprise her with like-minded action to go with his attitude, so she stays. But just as her father sleepwalks to the nearest bar with his absentminded lack of ambition causing him to constantly misplace his gun and her husband goes to work only to come home and ready himself to do so again, Lee Ray’s routine eventually proves too much to combat.
All these men talk a big game before resigning themselves to the fate Cozy worries that she shares. Something new comes along to spark their interest and yet they never know what to do with it. They waste potential out of fear—complacently afraid of everything because the little they have is better than swinging for the fences and failing. And this reality is never more noticeable than when Cozy refuses to join them. That’s not to say she doesn’t give them too many chances to prove her wrong or that she doesn’t end up sleeping through most of the movie assuming they’ll follow through on their promises, but her frustrated scowl is ever-present to reveal her breaking point is on the horizon. Enough will eventually be enough.
Even at 76-minutes, however, River of Grass can still feel like forever. But wherein the drama of Reichardt’s later work allows for fatigue, the subtle humor here keeps us awake. There are many moments that use long, silent set-ups to augment the often-random punch line arriving right when we think we’ve had enough. She constantly lulls us to sleep only to pull the pillow out from under our head with an absurd laugh or unexpected bang. Reichardt shows just how helpless these men are without Cozy and in turn how necessary it is for her to kick them all to the curb and cut her own path. While they puff out their chests before hanging their heads, Cozy sighs with disappointment, takes the wheel, and drives.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.
courtesy of Oscilloscope