River of Grass (1994)

Directed by Kelly Reichardt


In River of Grass an existentially bored housewife searches for an identity.  The story concerns her, a similarly lonely loose cannon and a lost gun.  She is Cozy, he is Lee (Larry Fessenden), and the gun belongs to her detective father.  That they are all so neatly connected perhaps stretches plausibility, but it’s what I think of as an endearing quirk of a story such as this. In a way it makes its own sense, as if subtly commenting on an interconnectedness and inevitability within the world and maybe the broader world too.

River of Grass feels like a film made within the French New Wave.  It’s a modest story of crime and dispassionate characters made affectionately with a low budget.  The seams of the story and story world are quite visible and make the experience all the more endearing, as if every drop of sweat made its way onto the screen.

Lee nearly runs Cozy over on the side of a highway, then they meet in person at a bar, he buys her a drink, he  sneaks her into the backyard pool of someone he claims to know, he shows her the gun he found, she’s intrigued, the owner of the house startles them, she pulls the trigger without thinking, and they go on the run.

Because of the respective disaffection of each character, their turn into sudden criminals on the lam is somewhat romantic.  It’s the same as with so many old films of this type, the first coming to ming being Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.  They are defined by a single action, and rather than express extensive dismay they embrace this new path, as if they were nothing before it happened.

Often it’s the film itself which frames the character in such a romantic way, but this time around their escape isn’t all that glamorous (mostly just lying low in a seedy motel), and instead Cozy glamorizes the crime herself.  She is even a bit excited by what they’ve done, and it’s not long after the supposed murder that we learn they didn’t actually kill or even injure anyone.

It’s Cozy who imagines this fantasy, at least in the sense of turning herself and Lee into Bonnie and Clyde.  She is so detached from her own life and her own family, feeling like she’s been a passive observer of life all these years, and just the fact that she has taken action is cause for celebration, at least as she sees it.

Pulling the trigger gave her an identity, and when she learns from Lee that no one really died she makes another decision to maintain this new idea of herself.  She quite likes who she has become and chooses to ensure things never go back to normal.

It paints quite the sour picture of a domestic life in the suburbs, not far from that presented in Revolutionary Road.  We hardly ever see her husband, and even her kids just feel like set dressing because of how little she relates to them.  In an early scene we see her calmly pour Coca Cola into her son’s bottle rather than milk.

So the film comments on a gaping hole in the soul of a certain type of person.  Though the criminal aspect of the film is a bit spectacular, the life Cozy leads early on is quite mundane.  Her disaffection is the point, that she did what she thought she was supposed to and ended up in a dead end.  All she has left is her own imagination and the choice to dramatize and glorify who she wants to be.

There is a montage at the beginning of the film in which Cozy explains to us who her parents were, how she grew up and why she got married.  A series of static images from the time in question are presented onscreen, like relics pulled from a museum.  Later there is a moment in which she closely examines the images of women plastered on their own records.  These are well-lit, fanciful depictions of people in a specific pose, selling their own image in a sense.  For these once famous musicians this is the image they wanted to give off to the world, surely not the real picture of who they are or were.

The film as a whole is similarly the image of Cozy she wants to give off to the world, at least until a certain point.  We’re in her head, listening to her narration, and we see everything through her eyes.  When she pulls the trigger she gives herself agency and to some degree finally begins to control the way the world (and we) see her.

Up Next: Night Moves (2013), X-Men: First Class (2011), Certain Women (2016)

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