River of Grass is the nickname for Florida’s expansive wetlands, the Everglades, long thought uninhabitable, as Cozy (Lisa Bowman) explains in an early voiceover, though this has since changed, invaded by freeways and strip malls, this ode to the natural world overrun by the machines of man. Latter day auteur Kelly Reichardt, for whom “River of Grass” served as an auspicious feature film debut in 1994, winning the Grand Jury Prize at the less-caffeinated version of Sundance, might have made that observation her focal point. She is a director who favors stillness in her frames and nature in her themes. “River of Grass” is still interested in landscapes, but they are less about wildlife than the ones trying to run out nature, the shabby environment of southern Florida, where it is principally set, where homes look like shantys, motels looks like shacks. And whereas her films often revel in, or draw fear from, silence, here the soundtrack is piled high with jazz drum solos, all of which seem to resemble the noise occupying a place in the mind of Cozy, a mother not devoted to her daughter and not in love with her husband, and whose dreary stay-at-home life is slowly winding its way toward absolutely nothing.
Latter day Reichardt is also not a noted humorist, preferring solemn observations, which doesn’t mean she’s tedious but that she opts for serious observations about matters near and dear to her heart. “River of Grass”, however, is funny, really funny, albeit darkly funny, with a twisted and bleak viewpoint of the world. After all, it’s jumping off point is a hilariously dry scene in which a detective, Ryder (Dick Russell), loses his gun in the midst of a chase. Not knowing, however, where or when it went missing, he scours his house for it like he’s lost his jacket. He never finds it. Lee Ray Harold (Larry Fessenden), however, who looks like Timothy Olyphant if Timothy Olyphant was a south Florida vampire, does find it. He lives at home with his grandmother. He has no job. He has nothing to do. He takes the gun to a bar and meets Cozy who, as it happens, has just walked out on her child and husband without telling them.
Turns out that Ryder is Cozy’s dad, which means that his gun is with his daughter, though she doesn’t know it and he doesn’t know it, which sounds like the set-up to another joke. But the punchline isn’t what you expect, because “River of Grass” roundly refuses to make a big deal out this development, treating it merely as meaningless coincidence rather than some cosmic unifier. And if per the Law of Chekhov’s Gun, this gun has to go off, when it does the significance of the gunshot is skewered too, because when Cozy and Lee Ray Harold shoot someone and go on the lam, it is quickly revealed that they only think they shot someone. No one was shot at all. This marks “River of Grass” as unique – a Lovers on the Lam movie in which the lovers are not really on the lam, outfitting the proceedings with a tragedy so depressingly comic you almost want to cry, and that comicality is what makes the pointed lack of empathy for these two bozos immaterial; there is no intent to engender empathy, just to observe.
This suboptimal Bonnie & Clyde decide to flee the Sunshine State, but they can’t because they have next to no money, and thus hole up in some halfway house posing as a hotel where they are forced to shoot Palmetto Bugs in the bathroom. Lee Ray Harold subsequently goes on a “crime spree”, a crime spree which consists of plundering a drier at a laundromat and stealing his sack of groceries after another guy commits the robbery Lee Ray Harold couldn’t bring himself to attempt. Cozy fancies them as a kind of modern variation of Kit and Holly in “Badlands”, but they are not; they are not even close.
It’s fascinating to view “River of Grass” through the prism of time, not just in comparison to Reichardt’s later output but in contrast to the wave of crime films that were released in the mid-90’s, particularly in the wake of Tarantino, when so many would be auteur hepcats tried making crime films for yucks and stylistic kicks. “River of Grass”, however, lands somewhere off the grid, more akin to George Armitage’s wonderful and woefully underrated odd duck crime thriller “Miami Blues”, which also refused in any way whatsoever to romanticize or thoughtfully unpack the criminal mind. The criminal mind, in the case of Cozy and Lee Ray Harold, is woefully inadequate, so much so that they are ultimately foiled by a tollbooth, which is one of the most gloriously purposeful climactic letdowns I’ve ever seen in a film, leaving you stricken with laughter, until it suddenly, almost elliptically, turns, as if Cozy has become hell bent on becoming the Bonnie Parker she only thought she was, before she passes a place the movie has already been, like she’s just driving in circles.
There’s this shot in “River of Grass” that just floored me. It’s early, after Cozy gets pulled over by a cop, but not really pulled over by a cop, because she knows the cop and he just saw her and wanted to talk, dispense some advice. Reichardt sets the shot on the side of a freeway, a not-yet-operational elevated mixmaster towering behind them. It’s all-white, and looks almost futuristic, like an alien-approved skyway stretching up toward the clouds. The mixmaster is not yet operational, however, and so the roads go nowhere, like Cozy’s life, maybe like all our lives.