“Man, I could shoot my way right out of here,” says Lee Ray Harold.
I know of Kelly Reichardt through her directorial efforts Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff (which I actually got to see on the big screen at Film Forum during its original theatrical run five years ago), and Night Moves. 12 years before Old Joy, she made her feature-length directorial debut with River of Grass. River of Grass premiered at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, had an official theatrical release in late 1995, and has hardly been seen since. The film was in need of a new digital restoration and, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign launched by distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories (one that I was proud to have participated in), has been able to achieve it. I recently saw the newly restored River of Grass on the big screen at the IFC Center in New York City, and it was a fascinating experience (I definitely want to check out the rest of her filmography even more now!).
1994’s River of Grass follows a bored Florida housewife with no emotional connection to her children as she meets a man who is equally aimless in life in a bar one night. After sneaking into a stranger’s yard to use his pool, they accidentally shoot him and, believing he’s been killed, go on the run, trying to make their way out of the state. Reichardt gathered together an interesting ensemble that includes Lisa Bowman (as Cozy), Larry Fessenden (as Lee Ray Harold), Dick Russell (as Detective Jimmy Ryder), Michael Buscemi (as Doug), Santo Fazio (as Captain Ortiz), Greg Schroeder (as Bobby), and Steve Kaplan (as J.C.). Bowman is terrific as a lonely woman who yearns for an exciting life but is trapped by a lack of economic resources. Fessenden is also just as good but not as sympathetic; his Lee might not have grown up to be a bit of a loser with no ambitions who still lives with his mother and grandmother had he been raised in a better household. Russell brings a mix of humor and sadness as Cozy’s father, a former drummer turned police detective who can’t seem to hold on to his gun.
Reichardt’s screenplay examines two lost souls whose lives are altered by a gun lost (ironically enough) by one of their fathers. Their attempts to leave the state after the shooting are borderline pathetic (the idea of people trying to leave a place while lacking the resources to do so would become a recurring motif in Reichardt’s films). One of the funniest moments in the film is when Lee hesitantly tries to rob a convenience store (he nervously stares at the clerk for a long moment and, before he can find the courage to pull out his gun, an actual thief bursts in and takes the cash from the clerk’s register). Jim Denault’s cinematography creates an unflattering look for Florida, and Fessenden’s editing moves the film along at a good, leisurely pace. Reichardt has described River of Grass as “a road movie without the road, a love story without the love, and a crime story without the crime.” It’s an entertaining debut from one of America’s most talented filmmakers centered on a Bonnie and Clyde-type duo who aspire to be Bonnie and Clyde but don’t accomplish much else (although the film does end with a shocking finale).