River of Grass (1994): Kelly Reichard’s Impressive Sundance Fest Debut

First-time writer-director Kelly Reichard’s River of Grass was one of the highlights of the 1994 Sundance Film Fest, where it played in competition.
Reichardt describes her feature as: “A road movie without the road, a love story without the love, and a crime story without the crime.”   It’s an accurate description of her deconstructionist film, in which she evokes the tired and tiresome lovers-on-the-run genre only to stand it on its head, shaking out of it fresh meanings and sly humor.
Made on a minuscule budget, “River of Grass” revolves around a housewife who finds excitement with an aimless young man when they shoot a man and go on an escapade.  Reichardt confounds predictability, confronting us with the awful banality of many people’s everyday lives rather than providing her characters with an escape from it.  Yet she is so agile and ingenious that she makes a lively movie about how life isn’t like the movies.
Cozy (Lisa Bowman) is a thirtysomething mother of three, who lives in a drab suburb of Florida’s Broward County with her police detective father Jimmy (Dick Russell) and her dull husband. Cozy, who also serves as narrator, delivering his commentary in a deliberately flat and emotionally affectless voice.
Aware of her loneliness and shabby life, Cozy dresses up one Friday night and heads for a local bar, where she meets Lee (Larry Fessenden). He’s a man her age, an equally lonely lay about who also grew up in a broken home and who’s been thrown out of the house he’s shared with his grandmother and mother.  Sheer chance has thrust a gun in Lee’s hands.
Cozy and Lee could scarcely be more ordinary.  Everything about them, starting with their physical appearance, is average.  Needless to say, they lack the financial security, knowledge, and opportunity to live anything but the bleakest existence.  But crossing paths, they ignite within each other the possibility of a free, adventurous life. Circumstances lead them to believe they could be killers on the lam, but they’re essentially decent people capable of being thrown by the lack of a quarter at a toll gate.  They haven’t a clue as to how to be a Bonnie or Clyde.
In “River of Grass,” the workings of fate, so crucial to the love-on-the-run genre that Reichardt is sending up, become a source of rueful humor.
The distinguished cameraman Jim Denault, who has shot many indies, helps immeasurably in sustaining the film’s dry tone that life is always going to be off-kilter for Cozy and Lee.
In the film’s other key role, Russell captures perfectly the sense of defeat experienced by Jimmy, a handsome man and one-time professional jazz drummer, who is now in his paunchy, disillusioned middle-age.