'River of Grass' revives Kelly Reichardt's unique debut
The director of "Wendy and Lucy" and "Meek's Cutoff" is about people who only wish they were Bonnie and Clyde.
‘River of Grass’
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Stars: Lisa Bowman, Larry Fessenden
5 (out of 5) Globes
Jean-Luc Godard came close to directing “Bonnie and Clyde.” He didn’t, but if he did, bits of it might have looked like “River of Grass,” Kelly Reichardt’s lovers-not-quite-on-the-lam riff. A minor hit at Sundance in 1994 then quickly forgotten, it’s been revived in part because its director later became an indie god, crafting such art house hits as “Old Joy,” “Wendy and Lucy” and “Meek’s Cutoff.” “River of Grass” resembles none of those, which feature long, trancey stretches and, nowadays, big name actors. “Grass,” meanwhile, has experimental editing and big lifts from Godard’s “Pierrot le fou,” another film about a couple trying to escape crushing mundanity into their own conjoined bubble.
Then again, at least Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina in “Pierrot” were hot for each other. Among other twists on the crime genre, Lisa Bowman’s Cozy and Larry Fessenden’s Lee Ray just seem thrown together by boredom. She’s a northern Miami housewife who one night pays a whimsical trip to a dive bar. There she meets Lee Ray, a layabout who just found a gun. While canoodling by a friend’s pool, she accidentally shoots a man, so they decide to hit the road — or just the area’s motels, since they can’t even afford the interstate toll.
Awash in almost-no-budget '90s indie smudge, it’s a “Bonnie and Clyde” about people who only wish they were Bonnie and Clyde. It's a film where not-quite-lovers run in circles, where the only booty they pilfer is his mom’s record collection, where Lee Ray can’t even successfully stick up a convenience store. (When he tries, he puts off drawing his gun for so long another guy runs in and robs it himself.) He’s no Warren Beatty rogue but a loser, with a missing front tooth and a weird “mom” tattoo, though Fessenden — the director of brainy horrors like “Wendigo” and “The Last Winter,” who also edited no top of co-starring — does look a bit like a Jack Nicholson gone to seed. Cozy didn’t even kill the man, though Lee Ray tells her she did, just to keep their adventures going.
“River of Grass” isn’t just about bringing a hard-boiled genre down to earth. Its heroes may be cosplaying as wanted criminals, but their anxieties run deeper. In fact, they’re downright cosmic. Cozy is slightly older than a Bonnie Parker type, and never leaving the same run-down part of Miami has made it feel like it’s her entire world. At one point — on a narration track that’s like a more self-aware version of the one in “Badlands” — she talks of how she once tallied how many hours she’d been alive and how many she likely had left.
Reichardt likes to cut around, jumping between our heroes and their flabby, middle-aged men pursuers, or even jumping around character’s timelines. (The fragmented opening, which depicts a cash register being robbed, keeps returning to the detective who couldn’t stop it, brooding over his whiskey. Maybe he’s always in that bar, brooding over something else.) But no one’s going anywhere, and Reichardt captures little moments of time-killing: her sorta-lovers sharing a joint they hold between their toes; Lee Ray practicing his grifting skills by stealing his own wallet from his back pocket; Cozy poring over their stolen record haul. It’s a genre piece robbed of any and all pomp, and if it looks little like Reichardt’s subsequent work, it has the same devastatingly melancholic feel.