When The Road Trip Never Leaves Home: “River of Grass”
Watched as part of a Twitter Watch Party hosted by Allison M. — Thank you for the fun experience, it’s always interesting to watch something you probably would have never picked by yourself!
There’s an unmistakable feeling of being trapped when watching this. The hot Florida weather makes every character heavy with sweat and their words equally lethargic; all the interactions within this little world feel like they already have a fixed outcome. Even if it can feel alien to us, Reichardt talks about a world she knows well, and we have no choice but to trust her while we follow her lead.
This could suggest quite an unpleasant, possibly even manipulative, viewing experience for us, but Reichardt manages to pull off something completely unexpected here. From our perspective, River of Grass is a peaceful film: punctuated with jazz music and calm voiceovers, even the crime aspect of the film doesn’t feel serious enough to induce anxiety. It doesn’t take much for anyone to realise the kind of lives these people are living: one night, one shot, one line of dialogue, one conversation. We know where we are, and we don’t really have any reason to believe they could ever go anywhere than back where they started. And if there’s no escaping this, we might as well sit back and enjoy the music.
On the other hand, the characters we get introduced to aren’t resigned to their imprisonment — who knows if they even realise how limited their lives are. Cozy was never built for marriage and motherhood: her husband and children are obligatory figures in the background of a life that was chosen for her. She fills her days by laying in the sun and spinning herself around, perhaps hoping that one day the world will decide to spin with her. On the other hand, Lee seems like one of those people who were never made for life in general: rude, dangerous, floating through each day rather than living any of them.
Cozy and Lee don’t know any more about each other than we know about them, but they do perceive a quality they both have in the other: a longing for something more. As the turning point of the film happens and the two go on the run, neither of them look back or question their decision. Anything, no matter how small or uncertain, is a good excuse to leave.
Reichardt doesn’t insinuate that we, or any other character in the film, are superior to Cozy and Lee, but we do have something more: the sad knowledge that their quest is one without a happy ending. It is always impressive when a filmmaker manages to keep a movie interesting even when its ending is pretty much set in stone, and River of Grass pulls it off in a way that feels particularly bittersweet. It’s less of a journey than a particularly quick trip to the grocery store and back, perhaps with a couple extra circles through a roundabout. The possibility of a world outside of this stifling summer heat isn’t even hinted at, and how could they possibly reach something that doesn’t even exist?
The film’s short runtime (76 minutes, opening and ending credits included) only serves it — this isn’t a story that would have benefited from too much exposition. On the contrary, the vagueness of the place and the side characters help make the film what it is. As any research on Reichardt will tell, the film is influenced by her own life, and it shows thoroughly. She doesn’t need more than a brief outline of a plot to make a point. It may be a simple film, but it’s one that speaks directly to us, without any extra. It feels like an honor to be able to witness something so thoroughly honest and melancholic at once, and while this will do little to encourage viewers to get out of their routine or lift anyone’s spirits up, going along for the ride still feels rewarding in all its bleakness.