River of Grass

Nothing could be more exhilarating and erotically dangerous than a young man and woman on the lam, right? River of Doubt twists the trope inside out, exposing the situation as the uneventful dead end it probably usually is in real life. The debut film by writer-director Kelly Reichardt (who went on to make the critically lauded Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy), River of Grass (named for the Everglades near where the non-action unfolds) is almost like Badlands left out in the sun to blanch and peel for two weeks. The pair on the lam are Cozy (Lisa Bowman), a thirtyish housewife and mother dismally dissatisfied with her lot in life, and Lee (Larry Fessenden), a dentally challenged ne’er-do-well who finds himself in possession of a gun. One night, Cozy leaves her baby alone in the house and wanders off down the road, where Lee almost runs her over. She tracks him to a bar, and after a possible accidental killing, they’re on the run from the cops ā€” including her dad (Dick Russell), a failed jazz drummer who tends to drop his gun.

In this comedy of ennui, Cozy and Lee don’t fall in love, don’t even have sex (from what we see); they just slouch through an extended vacation in which the monotony is broken only by a cockroach. Cozy is thrilled to be forced to leave her life behind; it’s the sort of dramatic escape she’s probably been yearning for, having seen the same movies we have. But this sort of fantasy is much less rejuvenating in actual practice, where Lee tries to sell his mother’s record collection just to put gas in the car. Bowman’s daydreamy, laconic manner (she also narrates) bumping up against Fessenden’s white-trash creepiness (in between directing his own films, he usually specializes in being creepy in other people’s films) creates its own kind of erotic friction, though not one that’s ever acted on or even thought about. (The closest to physical they get is sharing a joint, passed back and forth between their toes.) Cozy lazes around in a swimming pool like a lackadaisical mermaid, while Lee sits on the edge, staring down at his feet and playing with his gun. You can almost hear Reichardt chortling behind the camera.

There’s an element of wit in Reichardt’s minimalism here that isn’t present in her later, more somber work; though this film is set in suburban Florida and her latter two films camp out in Portland, Oregon ā€” basically kitty-corner across the country ā€” they all take place in the depressed parts of America, the lonely roads bracketed by industrial machinery, the disenchanted people shuffling around aimlessly. It’s a consistent vision and, to me, an appealing one.

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