While watching Kelly Reichardt’s 1994 road movie – her debut – you can sense the influence of other independent filmmakers who were firmly ‘established’ by the mid-1990s. There are echoes in this film, which tells the story of two untypical criminals on the run, of landmark pictures such as Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy and Terrence Malick’s Badlands in terms of the tone, cinematography, locations, production design and plot, although there is also enough evidence of Reichardt’s own voice and early self-confidence to ensure that River Of Grass is more than mere pastiche and to indicate that she wasn’t timidly in thrall of those earlier works.
In fact, there is much to distinguish this film from the road movies and crime dramas written and/or directed by men (it’s rare that a woman tackles either genre today, and it was doubly so in 1994). As per much of the director’s subsequent output, the pace of River Of Grass is decidedly unhurried, and therefore completely at odds with the breakneck speed regularly employed in most crime movies of the mid-1990s. Additionally, any scenes of sudden, sporadic violence – and there are a few here – are underplayed, and that also distances Reichardt from any contemporaries she had at the time – with regard to bloody acts of cruelty, other (male) indie filmmakers of the era were going big at every available opportunity.
Where the likes of Quentin Tarantino celebrated the murderers and criminals on the lam who appeared in his screenplays (turning at least four of them into notable early-1990s antiheroes), the two main protagonists of River Of Grass hit the road after shooting a man while they are trespassing on his property, and spend a lot of the subsequent running time in motels, stores and cars, unsure as to whether they’ve actually killed him. There is no revelling in their combined baseness here: you couldn’t describe the duo as ‘cool’, and their shared self-doubt courses through the film, as does their vague lack of direction and inability to escape the area of Florida that they live in; the highway should offer a way out, but here it just seems to send the couple round and round in circles. By way of contrast, the outlaw couples of, say, Badlands, True Romance and Natural Born Killers all seem to be going somewhere at pace, and seem more sure of their respective relationships and shared short-term and long-term goals.
A gun features prominently in Reichardt’s film, but it is handled in such a way as to suggest that both characters are either fairly unfamiliar with firearms or completely inexperienced. Again, unusual for the period. (Clarence Worley, in Tony Scott’s Tarantino-scripted True Romance, by way of comparison, seems a natural shooter despite being a comic store clerk with, presumably, very little experience of guns – the implication being that comics and movies can teach you everything you need to know about weapons and how to handle them, or that some kind of innate masculine know-how is unlocked when fingers first wrap around cold steel.) Only near the end is the gun of River Of Grass used with real intent and purpose, and when it is fired it’s a surprising act – the two characters have been making their way across unremarkable Floridian landscape for most of the movie, never really getting anywhere, and then suddenly the plot veers off in a pleasingly unexpected way. There’s a very Reichardtian sense of new hope by the end, though typically it’s just left hanging for the viewer to contemplate, rather than explicitly followed up on.
Elsewhere in this film there’s innovative deployment of montages, a formal decision that also helped to distance Reichardt from the pack in the mid-1990s and marked her out as a talent whose career would be worth following. (Something that’s easy to say in hindsight, admittedly.) That said, there is also plenty here to date the film, from some of the events that unfold and the dreamily-delivered narration to Jim Denault’s cinematography, which has a certain sun-bleached indie aesthetic that I associate with the era. The lead performances by Lisa Donaldson and Larry Fessenden also seem very typical of the early 90’s to me: less cartoonish and overt a Kit n’ Holly homage than Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater in True Romance, but still kind of harking back to the American New Wave and actors like Spacek, Sheen, Nicholson or Dunaway when they were young. None of this is intended as a criticism: it’s an indie film made in the mid-90s and that’s exactly what it looks and feels like. However, it was also a very promising, intriguing debut that successfully undercut some of the tropes of the increasingly predictable and successful crime films directed by men at the time. (3.5/5)