River of Grass

Kelly Reichardt’s debut feature, River of Grass, has recently been restored by Ocscilloscope Laboratories, Sundance Institute, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and TIFF. A DCP of the new print will be touring the country in March, but the restored film itself screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I was abel to attend the screening thanks to the film’s publicity team, and I whole-heartedly recommend you catch the film when it screens in your area in a couple of months.

Like many filmmakers’ first films, Reichardt drew from her own upbringing for her first feature and set it in her hometown in Dade County, Florida. Humorously, Reichardt, now twenty years into her filmmaking career, said in the post-screening discussion that she’s totally against filmmakers doing that sort of thing now. No one asked her why she feels that way, but she did say that finding better writers to work with and finding better stories to tell has made her a better filmmaker. (Ironically, River of Grass is partly about a couple of young people trying in vain to escape their hometown. Perhaps Reichardt has always nursed an ambivalence to the place of her birth.)

Though River of Grass’ setting is familiar to Reichardt, the story and characters are straight out of the realm of cinema. A young woman, Cozy, longing for a more exciting life connects with a young good-for-nothing guy and goes on a crime spree, sorta. If Griffith was right, and all an audience wants is “a girl and a gun,” then River of Grass has everything a movie needs. The film is smartly aware of this too, as shown by a funny dialogue scene between Cozy’s dad (a detective, like Reichardt’s father) and another cop.

As Reichardt said apologetically introducing the film, River of Grass’ influences are right on the surface. (She also said she’s since learned how to fold cinematic references into her films more gracefully.) This is a 1940s film noir filtered through the French New Wave and shot through the heart with 1970s New Hollywood urgency. Since the film is a combination of all of the above, it fits squarely into the Independent explosion of the early 1990s when a generation of filmmakers raised on cinema began remixing their favorite genres in new and exciting ways. Reichardt is a contemporary of Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jim Jaramusch, and Wes Anderson among others.

Reading through that list of Reichardt’s contemporaries, you might have noted that they’re all men. Reichardt is one of the few female filmmakers to emerge during this period. Her films since have focused mostly on female characters. Meek’s Cutoff is the stand-out, an otherwise typical Western that focuses rigidly on the perspective of the women involved in the story, rather than on that of the men. River of Grass is no exception. Cozy is the heroine of this story, though it takes her most of the film to figure out how to take control of her story.

Reichardt may see in her first film many directorial tendencies she’s now glad to be free of, but the film still plays like gang-busters for the rest of us. River of Grass is both greatly entertaining and astutely directed. The film was shot on 16mm film, so it’s locked in the boxy, Academy ratio, but Reichardt and cinematographer Jim Denault make great use of the space. My favorite shot is of Cozy floating in a pool. The shot places her in only the upper right corner of the frame. She’s adrift in that moment, not in the center of anything, and dangerously close to fading off into the nothingness outside the edge of the picture. By the end of the film, she’s decidedly in control of her life and resolutely in the center of the frame. In another scene (that features Steve Buscemi’s brother, Michael, in a small role), a character leaves and re-enters the frame multiple times to humorous effect.

First films are revelatory. Last year, Avril Speaks and I watched a collection of first films for a podcast series looking to see if now-famous filmmakers’ typical thematic concerns and stylistic choices are recognizable in their first films. River of Grass would have made a great addition to that series. Reichardt’s brilliance—rigorous devotion to particular perspectives; patient, smart storytelling; and concern for the agency of women in society—is there, and watching the film now provides an essential (and fun) foundation for the cinematic career of one of our finest cinematic artists.