Film Reviews

Bad Lands

River of Grass
River of Grass (1994)

Directed by: Kelly Reichardt

Written by: Kelly Reichardt

Cinematography by: Jim Denault

Starring: Lisa Bowman, Larry Fessenden, Dick Russell

Rating: B

When we meet Cozy (Lisa Bowman) at the outset, narrating her seemingly mundane life to old photographs and footage, she’s a housewife surrounded by the Everglades who is anything but happy there. Her life, despite a husband and kids, isn’t one of any real purpose, and she’d do anything to break out of that funk. And she does, running into Lee (Larry Fessenden) at a bar. He’s equally, if not more so, disinterested in his life as it is, but in his case, he’s found a gun that happened to be lost by a detective (Dick Russell) who is also Cozy’s dad. The crisscross of all three narrative threads sets the events of the film into high speed (and low pursuit). But that’s half an hour in. Prior to that meeting, you’d be forgiven for losing interest in the Badlands (1973) inspired voiceovers and the leisurely pace in which the film sets up not just its characters but the location itself. But I found a great deal of comfort in that first half hour, however sometimes disjointed. It’s just not done in film anymore. The audience isn’t quite trusted in the same way anymore. It’s a shame, because once the two cross paths, we’re off with a [literal] bang, on a joy ride that is equal parts wry and worrisome.

There’s perhaps something inherently (and cruelly) humorous about feeling lost in the world. Your immediate life never quite interacts with the world at large so you’re left to create a meaningful existence in your own sense of void. In fact, many of my favorite cinematic/literary characters are those that remain confined to a singular space for the duration of their journey, most times tragically so. That’s not to say that there isn’t personal growth along the way. It’s more so saying that the cyclical nature of life doesn’t have to be uneventful simply because the beginning is [still] the end. The fact that it feels boring isn’t so much a criticism as it is just the harshly presented reality. For Cozy and Lee, having that gun misfire and for them to subsequently misunderstand their mistake as murder, is the best thing that’s happened to either of them. And it’s kind of delightful to watch them go on the lam but never really go anywhere. The mere concept is hilariously (and depressingly) depicted as the two try to cross a toll booth with not a quarter between them, and are turned around by highway patrol. The film is full of such scenes, a personal favorite being Cozy’s dad and his partner sitting around a record store trying to find Cozy as Lee walks in to trade in his collection with Cozy lying inside the car right outside. This is their existence on the run, in cheap seedy motel rooms where even insects are thwarted by bullets instead of brains.

There’s an underlying melancholy in how Kelly Reichardt plays things out, and it’s further emphasized by her direction of the characters. No matter how kinetic the films gets with its drum solos and jazzy interludes, neither Lee or Cozy is necessarily pleasant to watch or even remotely connect to, but that’s probably what makes them flawed yet fascinating. I found myself paralleling this film to the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) quite a bit. Like that title character, the relatability lies less in the individual traits and more so in our collective desires. Anyone who’s lived in a small town with aspirations to escape will understand exactly how these two feel, despite their methods and reasoning for eventually leaving not quite being the same. Reichardt isn’t a filmmaker I’m familiar with, and that kind of annoys me, considering one my favorite films–also a debut and reason for me being a screenwriter–came out the same year, and possesses a lot of the same qualities (sans obvious French Wave aesthetics). Having not seen any of her other work, I can’t quite compare how River measures up thematically or otherwise, but for a first feature, what impressed me most is her ultimate subversion of my own expectations. In this case, the film ends not where it began, but with a new unforeseen beginning.