Since collaborating with writer Jon Raymond, Kelly Reichardt has hit her stride with two remarkable features, Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) – the latter which I consider the top indie film of last year (click here for the top-ten list). Given Reichardt’s new-found prominence, I recently took another look at her earlier and less well-known River of Grass (1995). Set in the rundown area between Miami and the Everglades, Reichardt’s regionally inflected debut feature is a feminist riff on a number of genres – the crime film, the road movie, and the love story – which she seems to subvert at nearly every turn.
River of Grass begins with a postcard of a hospital and family photos. In voiceover, the protagonist, Cozy (Lisa Bowman), describes biographical details about herself, including the fact that her mother deserted the family when she was ten and that her father (who named her after the musician Cozy Cole) claims the mother ran away and joined the circus. Cozy comments, “I like to think of her there in a sequin cape, flying through the air without a single net to catch her fall.” She informs us she married a guy named Bobby who wrote her poems in high school – someone Cozy hoped she would come to love.
Cozy describes how the couple bought a house where “the previous owner had murdered her husband and buried him inside the shower wall.” Over an image of a bloodied woman holding a clever, Cozy continues, “I’ve often thought about this woman and wondered what made her act so violently. I guess it wasn’t any one big thing, but a lot of little things that just grew deeper and deeper under her skin.” As Cozy speaks, we see an image of her, from the waist up, lying naked in the bath tub, with her hair submerged, giving her the appearance of a mannequin.
Reichardt uses parallel editing to establish her three main characters. Now married with young kids, with whom she feels little attachment, the thirtyish Cozy is a bored and dissatisfied housewife. She wonders whether anyone else could be as lonely as her. Such a person, it turns out, happens to be living in the next county – a deadbeat loser named Lee Ray Harold (Larry Fessenden), who, even though he’s twenty-nine, still lives at home with his mother and grandmother until he gets booted out. Lee’s friend, Doug, finds a gun on the road and gives it to him to sell. By coincidence, the pistol turns out to belong to Cozy’s father, Jimmy Ryder (Dick Russell), a veteran crime scene detective, who gets suspended temporarily for losing it. He’s also an avid jazz drummer, who gave up playing professionally once his wife became pregnant with Cozy.
Through camera movement and the sounds of Ryder’s extended drumming, Reichardt connects his playing drums to Lee getting a tattoo, Cozy taking a shower, family photos of her, crime books strewn on the floor, a woman Ryder has picked up in a bar, Lee driving with his gun, and Cozy slipping out of the house while her child lies fast asleep on the couch. A shot of Ryder hitting the symbols cuts to a closeup of Lee firing the pistol out the window of his moving car, creating a sound bridge. As Cozy hops across the road after getting something in her shoe, she nearly gets run over by a Lee’s blue Chevy Malibu. At the local tavern, he offers to buy her a drink once Lee realizes she’s the same woman he nearly hit with his vehicle.
The two spend the night drinking and flirting at the bar, bathed in red-filtered light. When Cozy asks Lee where he’s from, he tells her, “I’m kind of in limbo right now.” She responds, “Limbo. That sounds nice.” Cozy eventually starts to leave to head home, but Lee sweet-talks her into going swimming at a “friend’s” pool. The two climb over a wooden backyard fence and Cozy dives into the pool with her clothes on. As Cozy climbs out of the water and positions herself between Lee’s legs, we expect him to kiss her as he leans forward, but, in a sexually-loaded gesture, Lee thrusts the pistol into her hands. It accidentally fires when the owner surprises them with a flashlight. Believing they’ve killed a man, Lee convinces Cozy they need to hit the road.
Being on the lam gives new meaning to Cozy’s life, but the expectant romance with Lee never develops. Instead, they lie fully clothed on a bed in a cheap motel room. When Cozy screams at seeing a palmetto bug (large roach) in the bathroom, Lee shoots it, damaging the tiles and bringing the motel owner, who demands the rent. Lee and Cozy later break into his mom’s house. As Cozy dances to a 33 rpm record, Lee steals his mother’s record collection, some roast turkey, and a pair of her shoes. As Reichardt’s camera tracks through neighborhoods, Cozy explains in a voiceover: “Lee and I had crossed that straight line that Dad called the law, and I could feel the butterflies in my stomach as I tumbled deeper into a life of crime. After all, murder was thicker than marriage, and Lee and I were now bound by the life we took.” Lee, however, returns to the crime scene and finds that the owner is very much alive, but he chooses not to tell Cozy.
Failing to sell the records, Lee attempts to go on a crime spree, but he merely takes someone’s clean clothes from a Laundromat, and gets punched in the face while stealing groceries at a convenience store. Meanwhile, Ryder’s fellow detective connects the bullet fired at the swimming pool with the missing gun. Back at the motel, the two get stoned, as the initial excitement gives way to boredom. In voiceover, Cozy comments on the circularity of her life, “It’s funny how a person could leave everything she knew behind, but still wind up in the same place.”
Without money to pay for the motel room, Lee and Cozy set out on a road journey, but it comes to an abrupt halt when they don’t have a quarter to pay the highway toll. While waiting for the trooper to run a check on them, they physically struggle over the whereabouts of the gun, forcing Lee to confess to Cozy that they haven’t killed anyone. Lee’s revelation hits Cozy hard, causing her to question her sense of reality and personal identity. She comments: “Suddenly I wasn’t sure of anything. I wasn’t on the lam after all. I wasn’t laying low or ducking cops, and if I was no one cared. We hadn’t killed anybody. I couldn’t even be sure we had really killed the palmetto bug back at the motel room. So, if we weren’t killers, we weren’t anything.”
In River of Grass, grim fate turns out to be at the heart of Reichardt’s characterization. Perhaps because the film plays with genre expectations, its three main characters represent certain recognizable types: the bored housewife (Cozy), the redneck loser (Lee), and the frustrated detective (Ryder). Cozy’s voiceover narration is essentially an expository device. Through her narration, we learn certain aspects of her character. Her father’s profession, for instance, explains her fascination with the gory details of the woman who murdered her husband in the house that she and her husband, Bobby, bought at auction. Cozy’s commentary about the woman, of course, foreshadows her own actions later on.
Bobby works all the time, while Cozy remains stuck at home. We see her doing cartwheels in her house and spinning around in the yard like a child. That she leaves her kid asleep on the couch to go to a bar provides a telling comment about her character. All of these traits – broken home, a loveless marriage, boredom and loneliness – serve to explain why she might run off with Lee. Cozy views her life as predestined. She speculates: “They say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I found this puzzling and couldn’t stop wondering: Are our lives all mapped out for us? Would my daughter grow up only to wear my shoes? Did my mother’s life create my destiny? Or does one thing just trigger another?” Fate, along with the coincidence of events, serves to replace agency as the motivation for her behavior.
Our first introduction to Lee is a pan to him sleeping naked in front of a large American flag, while his grandmother awakens him. He ridicules his friend Doug for working at a dead-end job, which is why he spends his time driving around, getting stoned, and drinking. Lee scares his grandmother by pointing the gun at her and threatening to shoot her, causing his mother and grandmother to change the locks. At the swimming pool, the anticipated romance between them quickly gets short-circuited. As they hide out in a hotel room afterward, we expect that the crime will create an erotic spark between them, but it has the opposite effect. The two never touch, never kiss, never make love or display any affection for each other. If the gun’s misfire at the swimming pool turns out to be the equivalent of a premature ejaculation, it seems to destroy any hopes of intimacy between the couple.
We know less about Lee than Cozy. In their initial meeting at the bar, he tries to impress Cozy with the new tattoo on his shoulder that says “Mom,” but she points to a photograph of his mother he’s placed on the counter and tells him, “Mom? But we already have Mom here.” During Ryder’s questioning of Lee’s mother and grandmother, an unexpected clue surfaces when his mother reveals that he stole her high heels – something we’ve witnessed ourselves. In the motel room, where Cozy and Lee get stoned by passing around a joint they hold between their toes, Lee talks about his past. He reveals that his mother collects husbands. His real father, who married her twice, committed suicide on their second honeymoon by walking into the ocean. His mother married the mortician who buried him. Lee adds that it was “very creepy living with that guy!”
Cozy’s father, Jimmy Ryder, provides the plot connection between Cozy and Lee. If he hadn’t lost his gun, there would be no story. If Doug didn’t find it on the road and give it to Lee to sell, none of this would have happened either. As a crime detective, Ryder adds an important genre element, as he tracks down leads related to Cozy and Lee and the missing gun, but he never solves the crime he has set in motion. On a personal level, he comes to represent the person who has sacrificed his dreams for marriage, only to be abandoned by his wife along with Cozy. A hard-boiled detective, he drinks in bars, picks up women, and plays drums in his spare time. Even when Lee strides into the Blue Note record shop in an attempt to sell his mother’s records and their paths cross, Ryder fails to make the connection.
All of Reichardt’s characters are defined by the desolate sun-drenched landscape they inhabit. She uses frontal, postcard-like compositions, as well as tracking shots of depressed areas of South Florida – a vast wasteland of Laundromats, bars, record shops, convenience stores, strip malls, single-story dwellings, desolate palm trees, flat terrain, and intersecting highways. Reichardt mixes significant narrative incidents with mundane ones. Cops tell jokes or stories that have no relevance to the plot. Shots of passing freight trains and a jet flying overhead create a striking contrast to the inertia of the aimless main characters, whose life on the run remains largely confined to a motel room.
Ryder’s drum playing provides musical interludes and creates a series of numbered chapters that merely mark the passage of time. And the lone jukebox in the bar he frequents becomes a recurrent motif – a sad image of Americana that we associate with the photographs of Robert Frank in The Americans. River of Grass provides a feminist twist on what essentially are male film genres by deflating the romance associated with crime, violence, the open road, and heterosexual love. As Reichardt remarked in an interview with Todd Haynes – for Cozy, it’s not Lee, but the gun that represents her “real object of desire.”