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Writer-director Kelly Reichardt likes to describe her beguiling debut feature, “River of Grass,” as “a road movie without the road, a love story without the love, and a crime story without the crime.” A big hit at Sundance back in 1994, the film’s early champions included the late Jay Carr, who in The Boston Globe praised “River of Grass” as “incisive and funny. What’s even rarer, it’s simultaneously subversive and compassionate. Reichardt is a filmmaker to watch.”
Watch we did, and then waited. She didn’t make another movie for 12 years.
In the meantime, as happens all too often with independent films, ownership issues and preservation problems consigned “River of Grass” to the dustbin of cinema history. It was never released on DVD, though VHS copies of the movie circulated among collectors and bootleggers. Finally, last year the good folks at Oscilloscope Laboratories (the company founded by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch that distributed Reichardt’s 2010 masterpiece “Meek’s Cutoff”) launched a Kickstarter in partnership with the Sundance Collection at UCLA and the Toronto International Film Festival to digitally restore and re-release “River of Grass."
In a wonderful accident of timing, Reichardt’s first feature returned to Sundance this year and played alongside the world premiere of her sixth. It’s also at the Brattle this weekend (Friday, March 18 to Sunday, March 20), in what’s pretty much a wish-fulfillment fantasy for us local fans of the filmmaker who’d long ago resigned ourselves to assuming “River of Grass” had been permanently lost.
Reichardt’s 2006 sophomore effort “Old Joy” announced the return of a major talent in complete command of the medium. Quivering with Dubya-era anxieties, the movie follows the reunion of two hippie-ish college pals now pushing middle age on a camping trip that’s by turns contemplative, confrontational and ultimately enigmatic. The 76-minute film lives in the pauses between dialogue and gesture, these characters dwarfed by a Mother Nature indifferent to their minuscule concerns. Reichardt’s slow-burn cinema is an acquired taste — the first time I saw “Old Joy” I couldn’t wait for it to be over, but I found myself unable to stop thinking about it for weeks afterward.
She’s since discovered the ideal collaborator in Michelle Williams, an actress with a presence so haunted it can fill Reichardt’s stillnesses with multitudes. In “Wendy and Lucy,” their stunning anti-Western “Meek’s Cutoff” and the upcoming “Certain Women,” Williams holds the camera’s gaze, speaking volumes while saying nothing at all, until the slightest expressions become seismic. Reichardt has continued to refine this technique, stripping away any semblances of artifice and grounding the action in such mundane detail that her 2013 eco-terrorist thriller “Night Moves” made a gasp-inducing, white-knuckle suspense sequence out of Dakota Fanning buying fertilizer at a farming supply outlet. (Trust me, it’s terrifying. Just thinking about that scene makes me nervous.)
So for this particular Kelly Reichardt super-fan, finally seeing “River of Grass” 22 years after the fact feels a bit like happening upon a yearbook picture of an old friend dressed in adorably dated fashions. It’s a wicked '90s indie movie, serving as a nifty time capsule of certain cinematic trends that were on their way out plus some others that we’re still putting up with. Much funnier than Reichardt’s later pictures, “River of Grass” is a bit flippant and heavily references other movies in a way that was all the rage for young filmmakers who came of age in the video store generation. Yet it’s also fascinating to see her signature style beginning to assert itself from all the affectations and allusions.
“River of Grass” came out smack between “True Romance” and “Natural Born Killers,” during a time when an awful lot of up-and-coming directors were quite taken with the “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Breathless” mythology of murderous young lovers on the run. Like most movies made in that era, it’s heavily indebted to Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” — complete with a flattened, deadpan-hilarious voice-over narration by star Lisa Bowman.
She plays Cozy, a lousy mother and less-than-committed housewife bored out of her mind in the Florida Everglades. Cozy puts Coca-Cola Classic in her baby’s bottle and complains on the soundtrack that she never did have that "bonding thing" that’s supposed to happen with your children. One night she sneaks out to a Dade County dive bar and succumbs to the dubious charms of Lee Ray Harold (underground horror movie icon Larry Fessenden, who also edited the film). He’s been kicked out of his grandmother’s house and is trying to sell a pistol his friend found in an alley. The gun just so happens to be a police issue revolver that was lost earlier by Cozy’s drunken cop dad (Dick Russell) which hereby makes this the most heavily-plotted movie Reichardt has ever made.
There’s a shooting that’s really more of a misunderstanding, but nonetheless Cozy and Lee Ray find themselves on the lam, although they don’t get very far because they can’t afford the toll road. What Cozy calls a “crime-spree” consists of Lee Ray stealing laundry from the local coin-op, and he dithers so much before holding up a convenience store that someone else barges in and robs the place while he’s still standing there trying to work up the gumption. Mostly these two just waste their days attempting to hock his grandma’s record collection (stacks of vinyl that would probably be priceless now but were worthless in compact disc-crazy 1994) and lounging around a fleabag motel room, just as bored as they were before becoming outlaws.
It’s a clever piss-take on an over-romanticized genre. But “River of Grass” is more than just in-jokes thanks to what reviewers in the '90s used to condescendingly call “regional filmmaking.” See, back before every independent film took place in either the Los Angeles improv comedy scene or those same three square blocks near Lena Dunham’s apartment in Brooklyn, movies used to bring you to places you’d never been before. Populated mostly by area non-actors, “River of Grass” reeks so much of the Everglades it makes the theater you're watching it in feel humid.
There’s a wonderful specificity to the film, and Reichardt is already displaying her knack for keeping characters small in the context of a larger perspective. Cozy and Lee Ray think they’re having the adventure of a lifetime, and yet the rest of the world goes on undisturbed. The final shot pulls back as far as the eye can see on a hazy highway traffic jam completely oblivious to a trauma we just witnessed, and so begins a brilliant career.