A film of offbeat humour, inert narration, yet with a creative and intense soundtrack, Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass is an unchallenging, dynamic blend of idiosyncratic self-awareness and shallow characters, whose thoughtlessness and irresponsibility are framed as the reinvention of the wheel. A very effective condensation of the period’s and the subculture’s celebrated cliches in form, lifestyle and casting, its superficiality and hipness distinctly differ from Reichardt’s later films, building upon scorn and the grotesque distortion of a sloven and uninspiring environment. Drift has no denotation in the film, it doesn’t evolve as a utopian and hopeful pursuit, nor as a strife of necessity, because nothing is at stake for the drifters in question; they are destined for a series of mishaps and ridicule. Stripped of wanderlust romanticism or political ties, Reichardt also deprives her characters of chance, conceiving their failure without investigating the conditions that lead to it.
So far, Cozy’s (the main character) life simply happens, without any intervention on her part – she is in a loveless marriage and didn’t develop an emotional connection to her children. She often entertains the thought of predetermination (without any depth) in light of her mother, who had abandoned her when she was a child. Eventually, she also hits the road, both the first decision she wilfully makes about her life and a surrender to predetermination. Cozy teams up with Lee, a character who is never confronted with the falseness of self-pity. Lee finds a dropped gun belonging to Cozy’s father (a detective), which fills him with boyish pleasure. An exemplary instance of the film’s humour, Lee points the gun at his grandmother (with whom he lives together) – as a consequence he is kicked out of the apartment. The sheer appearance of consequence is unexpected, because up to that point such gags exist without any dramatic root, reinforcing the notion that everyone is a maverick living in their own world. It’s not a turning point though – at the film’s narrative peak Cozy and Lee trespass on his high school teacher’s backyard and when he notices them, they unintentionally shoot him, an accident that sets off the film’s main theme, their desire for independence obstructed by their inescapable social exposure. As it happens, the teacher wasn’t even injured.
Like Cozy herself, River of Grass is inattentive – it establishes a serious personal crisis and resolves it in an inappropriately comical manner. Cozy’s indifference to her environment is matched by the simplification of her boredom. She wonders what makes a housewife murder, but the film has no perception of time and solitude: there is no insight into the infertile hours spent alone or in the annoying company of children, whereas Cozy firmly believes that such cessation of putting up with unbearable circumstances culminates into violence over a long time, little by little. Denying inner development, Reichardt gets over the situation in the blink of an eye, showing Cozy’s parody of gymnastic exercises in rapid editing and absurd framing that only strengthen the detachment from reality. The film doesn’t connect Cozy’s ineptness and lack of expression to the systemic web that denies her interest and passion. Instead, it presents the resulting flatness, her irritated grimaces and attempts at autonomy as stand-ins for an actual personality. Without exploration of feelings and intentions, Reichardt allows social and cinematic stereotypes to define Cozy and Lee. The sense of haste and impatience extends to the getaway as well. The banal slips that could render the motif practical and criticise its untruthful elevation in popular consciousness, cannot unfold because no obstruction is elaborated on in the accelerated and weightless stream of scenes.
The voice-over indicates that Cozy and Lee are destined to be together, because they’re equally lonely. While it is never suggested that their individualism is a matter of choice, they relish ignoring others and if an undeserved incapability wasn’t imposed on them, Cozy and Lee could be outsiders without their self-absorbed despondence. At the same time, their strive for liberty is portrayed as a more valid and honest way of life, strongly contrasted with the jovial male solidarity that surrounds Cozy’s father, which is the only form of communal engagement in River of Grass, yet it provides him with nothing but the abstention of his real ambitions.
These very concerns made me reconsider the first segment of Certain Women, which I deemed the least lively and moving; now, I think of the dutiful attorney who in time of need overcomes her reluctance and tiredness, and I understand that the absence of excitement underpins the significance of responsibility.