Kelly Reichardt’s 1994 directorial debut, co-written with Jesse Hartman, Cozy (Lisa Donaldson) a dissatisfied housewife, meets Lee (Larry Fessenden) at a bar. A drink turns into a home break-in, and a gun shot sends them on the run together, thinking they’ve committed murder. Also starring: Dick Russell, Stan Kaplan, Carol Flakes, Frances Reichardt and George Moore.
Over her almost 30-year career so far, Reichardt has proved that she excels in making understated dramas, she has a talent for bringing together a small number of characters and giving them a strong, compelling focus. That’s exactly what she does for Cozy and Lee, they’re two young people slowly closing in on thirty but are stuck in the same patterns, the same towns with the same friends so their fateful meeting shakes things up. After Lee nearly runs over Cozy on their to the same bar, it gives them a shared moment to start up a conversation, they have an instant chemistry, it’s modest but it’s there. They have a very similar naivete and limited worldview, they’re downtrodden from boredom so when Cozy accidentally shoots a gun and believes that she has killed a man, it gives them the reason they needed to get out of town. It doesn’t divulge into crazy paranoia or frenzied running from the cops, it casually wanders into the beginning of a relationship and the struggle to survive on little money and nowhere to go.
The draw of this film is its honesty, little happens and they’re not overtly kind, generous or exciting characters, they’re just fed up of the lives they ended up with that they never wanted, because they don’t actually know what they want. Donaldson plays Cozy in such a way that’s somehow relatable despite her lack of redeeming factors, she cares so little about her children and her entire life that her accidental ‘crime’ is a godsend to get out. It’s impressive that she can keep your attention, she has brief spurts of liveliness amongst her morose personality, it would be melancholy if she weren’t frequently lacking in any vivacity. It’s probably better explained with the idea that there’s a spark in Cozy, she has potential but doesn’t know how to use it and you’re drawn into holding out hope that she’ll find a way. The reason for sympathising with Lee comes through that same vein, he brings Cozy out of her shell, he’s a childish man with no direction and lacks an awareness of the consequences of his actions but the chemistry he has with Cozy gives him a redeeming factor.
Visually, it’s quite simple all things considered, it has a modesty to it, but there are a few of Reichardt’s favoured lingering shots but it’s not venturing into the unknown, it keeps its focus on its characters. The script keeps the dialogue reined it, it’s not endless monologues or pontification about living a boring life, for the most part it’s perfectly everyday conversations, a little bit of police talk thrown in but it never strays too far from the ordinary. However in contrast to that, it’s an interesting story, one of deception, love and a need to escape; the characters never get very far, aspects of the story are within inches of crashing into each other but always manage to get away just before that happens. It’s deceptively simple, there isn’t much going on but there’s plenty of ethical and emotional issues brewing beneath the surface.
River of Grass is exactly the sort of film you’d expect as Reichardt’s debut if you’re familiar with her later work, you can see the skills that she developed over the years at their early stages, which even in their infancy were compelling. It’s a surprisingly captivating story, that eschews any glamour and keeps its feet firmly on the ground.