Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, July 17, 2020

Director Report Card: Kelly Reichardt (2020)

7. First Cow

It was probably inevitable. Kelly Reichardt is among America's mot acclaimed independent filmmakers these days, creating critically beloved little pictures that are distinctly her own and largely non-commercial. A24 is a studio that has gotten big by catering to a hardcore cinephile demographic and selling small pictures in smart ways. The two were going to cross paths eventually. So, for her seventh feature, Reichardt would hitch herself to the A24 train. The studio clearly believed in “First Cow,” her oddly named latest. They were determined to release it in theaters for quite a while, before the encroaching reality of the pandemic made a video-on-demand release the most logical route. The upside of this is I am able to enjoy “First Cow” much sooner than I probably otherwise would have.

The year is 1820 and the Oregon Trail has opened the path to the Pacific Northwest for many pioneers. Otis Figowitz, “Cookie” to his friends, operates as the chef to a group of rowdy fur trappers. He saves the life of King-Lu, a Chinese immigrant on the run after killing a man in self defense. Some time later, Cookie and Lu reunite at the nearest outpost, quickly becoming close friends. Cookie hopes to open a bakery some day but the only cow in the area is on the property of a rich Englishmen. Lu encourages Cookie to sneak up to the cow at night and take some of its milk. He uses the milk to cook delicious doughnuts, which are then sold in town to great success. As their business grows, Cookie and Lu receive more attention. And not all of it is going to be good...

“First Cow” sees Reichardt returning to a theme she hasn't touched on too much since “Old Joy.” That would be a close friendship between two men. Cookie saves Lu's life because he's a decent human being but also because he sees himself, a quiet outsider, in the persecuted immigrant. The duo's mutual outsiderdom is the foundation for their friendship but it's not why it lasts. Lu supports Cookie's dream of becoming a cook. Cookie supports Lu's dream of opening an inn. Their conversations are quiet but confidential. They have an understanding of each other. The bond between them is comfortable. It's the kind of friendship everyone dreams of, really. “First Cow” leans into that mood of relaxed companionship.

“First Cow” opens with a quote about friendship but this is not the movie's only concern. While the idea has bubbled under the surface of Reichardt's films from the beginning, this is the filmmaker's most searing indictment of the capitalistic system. Cookie and Lu have humble ambitions, of making delicious food and creating a place where people can rest. Yet Lu also notes that someone can make a lot of money running an inn. There's a sharp sense of the divide between people like the two and the rich man who lives on the island. The two, or Lu at least, wants to become like that. Yet a barrier – literal ones, like the fence around the cow, but mostly societal ones – keep them away from that status. They make money cooking but it's still not enough to grant them access. The veneer the Haves create is designed to keep out the Have-Nots, which is simply anyone deemed unworthy.

Through this theme of class division, Reichardt gets a chance to return to her favorite idea: People trapped in situations they have no control over. In a key moment, Lu says that the two of them don't have enough money to go but are too poor to stay. Cookie is very nervous about the idea of stealing the cow's milk, sneaking over to the rich man's property every night to milk it. Yet what other options do they have? You need milk, a commodity in this setting, to bake. The two are drawn further into a situation that will reveal their crime. At the same time, they can't turn back either. Inevitably, this turns out badly for them. Cookie and Lu are trapped by circumstance and eventually it dooms them.

“First Cow” is also about simpler things too. Despite playing a somewhat incidental role in the story, Evie the Cow gets the title spot. As Cookie sneaks over every night, he talks gently to the animal as he milks it. We learn the cow's mate died, that it's alone in this territory. This makes the animal something of an outsider too, so it's easy for Cookie to relate to her. It's not like the cow minds Cookie milking her. She happily gives what he needs, unlike the rich man who owns her. The understanding is intuitive. Just like Wendy's bond with Lucy,  the two don't need words to understand the comfort they give each other.

If you are making a movie about food, even partially, it's important that the food looks appetizing.  Cookie and Lu's trademark dish are oily cakes: Fried batter topped with cinnamon and honey. It's a simple enough recipe but, goodness, does it ever look tasty. Yet the film doesn't linger on its appealing snack just because it looks good. As their customer bite into the warm food, they note how it reminds them of the simple meals they had in their childhood. The stuff their moms use to make. Food is nostalgic. It links us with happier, easier times that we've experienced in our past. “First Cow” recognizes the power of food to connect people.

“First Cow” also sees Reichardt returning to “Meek's Cutoff” territory, in making a period piece from America's frontier days. Yet you wouldn't exactly describe the film as a traditional western either. Not just because it's wet, lush Pacific Northwest setting is so different from the dusty plains we usually see in this genre. Also because Reichardt depicts a past different from what we usually see in the lily-white western. Lu is Chinese, obviously. While visiting the rich chief's house, we see a group of Native Americans joining him. There are accents of many different types in this setting. This west is full of dusty, lived-in, and natural seeming homes that aren't exactly comfortable but provide shelter. “First Cow” depicts a more culturally diverse and down-to-Earth past, that is probably closer to reality than the sanitized version we usually see.

Once again, Kelly Reichardt foregoes a known movie star to play the main role in “First Cow.” John Magaro, an actor best known for various television roles and stage work, plays Cookie. Magaro has a quiet confidence in the role. He speaks calmly, rarely raising his voice above a whisper. Yet the audience always clearly understands where he comes from. You can see it in his eyes, in his posture. You're lucky when you can find an easily appealing actor like that. Magaro makes an easily watched star, someone you enjoy spending time with.

Co-starring alongside Magaro – as “First Cow” really is a two-hander between the two men – is Orion Lee. As Lu, Orion Lee speaks calmly but always makes himself understood. He observes the word and sees the truth around him. As with Magaro, Lee does not give a showy or overly self-conscious performance. Yet he speaks volume with a simple nod or a quiet turn-of-phrase. As the more active of the two men, Lee probably makes an even bigger impression on the viewer than Magaro does. Lee has appeared in some huge movies, though usually in small parts, so he probably has a good career ahead of him.

The most recognizable faces in “First Cow” are in the supporting cast. Toby Jones, with his erudite turn-of-phrase, could not be more perfectly cast as Chief Factor, the rich man who owns the cow and eventually turns into the film's antagonist. It's notable that Jones adds enough depth to the role to prevent the guy from coming off as nothing but a heartless aristocrat, even if that's basically what he's playing. Ewen Bremner has a memorably loud role as – what else? – an energetic and slightly unhinged Scotsman. Scott Shepherd is well utilized as the Captain, another authority figure determined to keep the characters in their place. Reichardt also throws in cameos from some of her regulars, with Alia Shawkat and Rene Auberjonis having bit parts.

Considered the animal on the poster and the forested location, you'd expect “First Cow” to look like Reichardt's other movies. By which I mean, you'd expect lots of shots of people walking through tree-filled natural vistas. Yeah, there definitely is some of that in the film, the warm, autumnal colors really popping in the last third. Surprisingly, the movie that “First Cow” most resembles visually is “Night Moves.” It's a more intimate affair, focused on the cast member's faces and the cramped interior locations they inhabit. Amusingly, Reichardt even zooms in on the face of Evie the Cow during the milking scenes, which feel as much like cozy conversations as any other of the other discussions in the film.

“First Cow” didn't work for me as well as some of Reichardt's other films. In its last act, it meanders somewhat aimlessly towards a typically blunt conclusion that, admittedly, works pretty well. Still, the film is highly likable and continues the clear interests and fascinations that the director has shown in the past. It's been warmly received by critics, earning some of the best reviews of the year. There's even been talks of Oscar buzz. Normally, I wouldn't expect a low-key film like “First Cow” to appeal to the Academy but, considering how weird award season is going to look next year, I guess we'll find out. [Grade: B]

Heading into this Director Report Card, I considered myself touch-and-go on Kelly Reichardt. I found some of her films brilliant, while others struck me as painfully slow. Watching all her stuff in the context of her whole career, even her more slow-paced features work better for me. Reichardt's definitely has a style, that's not for sleepy or hyperactive watchers. But sometimes you really do just want to see some people quietly wandering through a forest, ya know? Just reflecting on life and stuff. She has yet to make a bad film and, considering her valued position in the current independent film landscape, I imagine she'll probably get to make more. As always, thanks for reading.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Director Report Card: Kelly Reichardt (2016)

6. Certain Women

The majority of Kelly Reichardt's movies, at least those made after her comeback in 2006, had been set in her adopted home of the Pacific Northwest. Yet perhaps the director, like so many of her characters, was starting to feel a little trapped in her usual setting. For her sixth feature film, Reichardt would draw inspiration from the short story collection, “Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It” by Maile Meloy. Meloy largely writes about her home of Montana, bringing Reichardt some new scenery. The resulting film, “Certain Women,” would be another critically acclaimed motion picture from the director, seeing her pet themes and favorite ideas continuing to evolve.

“Certain Women” tells three tales, adapted from Meloy's writing, each set in and around a Montanan small town. “Tome” follows Lauren Wells, an attorney struggling to make a client, Mr. Fuller, understand he can't win his lawsuit. After finally grasping that, he takes a security guard hostage, with Lauren stepping in as his negotiator. In “Native Sandstone,” a family – wife Gina, husband Ryan, and daughter Guthrie – live out in a tent while he builds them a new house. Gina and Ryan attempt to collect some sandstone from the yard of a near-by neighbor, an elderly man with dementia. In “Travis, B.,” ranch hand Jamie spontaneously steps into a night class teaching student law. There, she immediately forms an ambiguous bond with Beth Travis, the inexperienced teacher of the class.

Aside from the Montana setting and female protagonists, there's no direct collection between the three stories in “Certain Women.” However, certain ideas and stylistic touches recur throughout. The difficulty of communicating with people seems to concern each segment. Mr. Fuller's failing eyesight makes it difficult for him to read and his emotions often boil over. Gina and Ryan's neighbor, Albert, clearly doesn't seem to understand what is being said to him. In “Travis, B.,” Jamie and Beth long to say things to each other but neither can quite find the courage. Everyone could overcome their challenges, if only they were able to properly express themselves.

While almost all of Reichardt's films could possibly be described as containing feminist themes, “Certain Women” seems to be the first movie of her's to explicitly, directly address that idea. Something else that connects the stories is, in each one, men do not listen to the women in their lives. In “Tome,” Fuller only grasps his legal options after a man explains it to him, despite Lauren having told him the same thing multiple times. In “Native Sandstone,” Gina fears her husband undermines her authority with their daughter. In “Travis, B.,” Beth ends up in a position she's ill-suited for because someone – presumably a man – just sticks her in the role. “Certain Women” largely speaks to the frustration of being a woman, of living in a world where guys just naturally ignore your advice, options, and abilities.

What I found especially interesting about “Tome” is that it is a stand-off story without much danger. Even though Fuller has a gun and is holding a man hostage, he never has the intention of harming anyone. In fact, there's quite a bit of quiet humor here. Fuller has a civil conversation with his hostage, a Samoan man with a distant relation to the island's royal family. Once Lauren talks him into letting the man guy, Fuller frenziedly delivers a escape scheme to her... That doesn't take into account that there are cops on both sides of the building. Not only is Fuller not dangerous, he's not especially smart either. The drama of the story comes from whether Lauren can reach through his emotional denseness and make some headway with the loss and pain he's feeling.

And if anyone could do that, it would be a character played by Laura Dern. “Certain Women” came right in the middle of our cultural reevaluation of Dern as one of our greatest character actresses. It's an opinion Dern continues to prove here. She plays Lauren as a woman with a lot on her mind. We get a glimpse of a relationship with a boyfriend but it's not a big concern for her. She sticks to her principals, such as when she insist Fuller stop talking about violence or get kicked out of her car. Yet she's empathetic too, coming to him in an hour of need. Dern's ability to display empathy, warmth, but a get-it-done attitude all combine perfectly in this character.

Aside from her debut, not many of Kelly's movies can be described as “funny.” Poverty isn't hilarious, ya know? Yet there is a quiet humor to “Certain Women.” This is most apparent in “Native Sandstone.” It's a comedy of such thoughtfulness, that I'm not even sure if it is meant to be funny. It might just be my weird sense of humor but I think there are laughs to be had in Gina's everyday frustrations. Such as the growing pains she has with her sarcastic daughter. Or a husband, whose rascally side she, perhaps, once found far more charming. There's definitely some rueful laughter in her attempts to get through to the senile, easily confused Albert. (Which definitely fits the theme of the difficulty in communication.) None of these are gut-busting laughs but “Certain Women” captures the challenges of every day life. And everyday life is sometimes funny.

If these scenes contain humor, then they also contain sadness. The great Rene Auberjonois plays Albert. At first, he seems fairly cognizant. He speaks in clear, complete sentences. He describes memories with certainty. However, inconsistencies soon appear. He contradicts himself. Memories conflict. He repeats phrases and information. It's soon apparent that the man's mind has betrayed him. This is a quietly heartbreaking moment, showing the insidious way dementia can cripple once bright, thoughtful people. Reichardt employs no melodrama, accurately capturing this sad fact of life. The final, ambiguous moment of the segment suggests Albert doesn't even remember having the conversation.

In her third collaboration with Reichardt, Michelle Williams plays Gina. This is not as severe a role as Wendy or “Meek's Cutoff's” Emily. Williams doesn't brave homelessness or the perils of the frontier here. It shows that she's just as good when playing everyday emotions too. Williams shows Gina's frustrations quietly, with a stern look or an easily missed sigh. There's also a warmth, towards her family and the pain Albert is feeling. We're never quite sure of Gina's thoughts but Williams certainly let's us see the gears turning, however subtlety.

In Meloy's original “Travis, B.,” the plot concerns a man and a woman. Reichardt made the decision to make both parts female. Whether Beth or Jamie are out lesbians remains totally ambiguous. Their relationship is obviously flirtatious. Jamie shows a clear interest while Beth happily hugs her during a surprise horse ride. “Travis, B.” lets its probably-gay characters exist as a matter-of-fact. Instead, it's a beautifully withdrawn romance. The flirting comes across through smile-filled meals together, polite conversation, and kind gestures. The doubts and uncertainty, familiar to any new relationship, appears through off-screen actions and snap decisions. The grand gesture – we don't know if it worked, since Reichardt loves her open-ended send-offs – does not draw attention to itself. It's quiet, adorable, and utterly engrossing.

The titular “Travis, B.” is played by Kristen Stewart, an actress I'm still largely indifferent to. Her previous attempts to shed the “Twilight' stigma, and bring her star power to indie favorites, did not impress me. I will concede that she's pretty good here. Her stutter-y delivery is well suited to a character totally over-her-head, thrust into a situation she was not prepared for. She doesn't seem like a movie star but a normal person, riddled with doubts. Lily Gladstone, as Jamie, is even better. She's an ideal Reichardt actress, as she can convey a lot with just a quiet glance and is compelling to watch even while simply existing. The two have calm but complimenting chemistry, a big reason why the segment works as well as it does.

After trying out a more intimate style in “Night Moves, “ Reichardt's trademark naturalistic approach makes a big comeback here. Long scenes are devoted to Jamie going about her business on the ranch, the camera watching her tend to the horses and bail hay. (An adorable corgi keeps her company.) Much attention is paid to the winding forest back roads that leads to Albert's house. The snowy and rocky Montana countryside is paid so much attention, it deserves star billing. Once again, Reichardt is establishing a sense of place. This is an isolated, normal town and isolated, normal people live there. The softly falling snow, mountains, and trees certainly add tot he film's likably quiet atmosphere... Even if we could've used one less ranching montage.

“Certain Women” would become Reichardt's most financially successful film yet. Meaning it still only grossed a little over a million dollars. Critics – not to mention Dern and Stewart's adoring fans – would be enthusiastic, many declaring it one of the best films of the year. I wouldn't go that far. “Certain Women” is intentionally minor, laid-back in its presentation and humble in its goals. Yet it's certainly an engrossing, wonderfully made collection of stories with some strong performances and that unforgettable atmosphere. Lastly, Reichardt dedicates the film to the memory of the real life Lucy, in case you were wondering if this one was going to make you cry or not. [Grade: B]

Director Report Card: Kelly Reichardt (2013)

5. Night Moves

Throughout Kelly Reichardt's last two features, there were occasional scenes of tension and quiet unease. A disturbed vagrant hovering over a sleeping Wendy or a stand-off between Emily and Meek left audiences uncertain of what would happen next. These moments suggested Reichardt could make a top-tier thriller, if she ever did something like commit to a genre. With her fifth feature, Reichardt would do just that, bringing her naturalistic approach to a story of criminals sneaking around and risking discovery. “Night Moves” would also, perhaps not coincidentally, feature the most recognizable actors the director had worked with up to that point. The film would win more critical raves, continuing the director's positive streak.

A pair of radical environmentalists, the intense Josh and the young but knowledgeable Dena, believe that the rich and powerful are hoarding water in the mid-west, as just an another example of how modern industry is destroying nature. They plan to blow up a dam, flooding the valley. They buy a boat, called Night Moves, and team up with another environmentalist (and former veteran) named Harmon. Packing the boat with fertilizer, turning it into a bomb, they sneak in under cover of the night and complete their mission. Soon afterwards, it's discovered that a camper was killed in the flood. Fear, paranoia, and guilt begins to tear the trio apart.

From its opening frame, a quiet tension infects every moment of “Night Moves.” A sense of unease exists in every interaction, a feeling that our protagonists are never more than one foul-up away from being discovered. It's a feeling that only increases after the dam is destroyed, a moment Reichardt masterfully keeps entirely off-screen. Now, “Night Moves” reveals itself as a movie about paranoia. A passing glance in a crowd, headlights in the rear-view mirror on the freeway: Normal, every day events are now fuel for fear. The view can't hear James' thoughts but we know they are. “Do they know?” “Am I I being followed?” “Will I get caught?” All followed by a sea-sick certainty that the answer is “Yes.” It's a mood Reichardt and her team expertly created, further aided by Jeff Grace's quivering, unsettling score.

Perhaps it's so easy to enter “Night Moves'” paranoid head space because the characters really do come close to screwing up several times. The script throws many inconveniences in their path as they race towards their goals. Buying the fertilizer needed to create the bomb is stymied when the seller asks for Dena's social security number, which she's obviously reluctant to give. The night of the detonation, campers are spotted by the dam, forcing a frenzied attempt at a defusing. James and Dena are stopped by cops after driving away from the scene of the crime. Each moment is rift with dread, Reichardt following those rules of cinematic suspense. The audience knows what's at stake, we're not sure what the characters know, and the suspense lies in the uncertainty of what may happen next. The repeated close-calls also reveals the radical protagonists' inexperience, making them more relatable and sympathetic.

Because Reichardt, ultimately, does want us to sympathize with these characters. The film clearly aligns with the characters' philosophies, which it makes apparent by showing a reasonable nature documentary early on. Blowing up a dam is extreme but anyone paying attention knows industry is out-of-control, at nature's expense. The conflict of “Night Moves” arises when ideology meets morality. None of the three are comfortable with taking a human life and, when it happens, they all find their commitment to the cause flattering. Josh's refusal to do the right thing leads him down a path of further misery. While the film is arguing for moderation in beliefs, a leash on ideology before it becomes fanaticism, it's as much about people in over-their-head, trapped by their own commitments. Reichardt transfers her favorite theme to a new level. Here we see people trapped not just by places and circumstances but their own ideas and beliefs. 

It only makes sense that Reichardt would make a film about environmentalism, considering the clear interest she showed in the natural world in her previous work. Once again, the trees and forest play a key role in establishing the particular mood she is after. As in “Old Joy,” the forest is a place of beauty and quiet, as opposed to the noisy and crowded urban areas. Yet this contrast serves another purpose. Her human characters aren't just figures in a landscape here. Close-ups on their faces are used more often, bringing us into their worlds, their inner thoughts and fears. This more intimate approach, when paired with Reichardt's trademark isolation, creates the chilly atmosphere of unease that propels the story's paranoia.

“Night Moves” is also home to three fantastic performances. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Josh. It's a part that makes good use of Eisenberg's skills. The nerdy resentment of “The Social Network's” Mark Zuckerberg morphs into an unnerving intensity here. Eisenberg says most of his early dialogue in a gruff, stern whisper. Josh is dead fucking serious, Eisenberg transforming that focus into an intimidating energy. Yet, as Josh's conscience starts to get to him, Eisenberg taps into that neurosis visible in most of his comedic roles. The proud eco-warrior facade fades, revealing the scared boy underneath. It's a transformation that draws the viewer in, more and more, as the film progresses.

Starring opposite Eisenberg is Dakota Fanning, as Dena. Fanning is similarly well-cast. In her early scenes, she's almost bubbly, joking around in a girlish manner. Yet Dena is no less serious about ecology than Josh is, Fanning affecting an impressive grimness during several frank moments. Dena also cracks up eventually though, Fanning getting a chance to exercise her well-known ability to cry and panic. The combination creates a fully-formed character, sometimes bratty, sometimes scared, always human.

Peter Sarsgaard rounds out the central trio as Harmon. It's a performance that, honestly, makes me uncomfortable. While everyone else around him is grave, Sarsgaard is casual. He chats with friends, talks about fishing, and jokes around. Perhaps I feel that way because I relate more to Josh and Dena. Yet Sarsgaard goes through a change before the end too. While Josh and Dena begin to crack up, Harmon remains calm and almost calculating. It's another way the film keeps up guessing. (Also, watch out for Alia Shawkat, in a small supporting role. It's always nice to see her.)

Reichardt's first four films shared an almost complete disinterest in traditional dramatic elements, like romantic subplots or on-screen violence. “Night Moves” swerves with these ideas in interesting ways. One moment in particular sticks in the mind. Josh is out gathering firewood and returns to the camper. He pauses at the window, Dena and Harmon's erotic moans audible from the outside. The scene is never brought up again. There's no real hints of attraction between Josh and Dena. Yet you can't help but read his face in that scene as one of disappointment. The two had pretended to be a couple in an earlier scene and you wonder about Josh's thoughts concerning that. It's an interesting, if perhaps superfluous, sequence.

If we suppose Josh does have a crush on Dena, the film's climax plays in a much different light. In one of the most upsetting moments of Reichardt's career, Josh chases Dena through a steamy bathhouse before strangling her. Was Josh's initial reluctance to track Dena down just based on him not wanting more blood on his hands? Or did he have feelings for her? If so, did his jealousy over her dalliance with Harmon contribute to his decision to kill her? I might be completely imaging this but the subtle suggestion adds to the film's overall depth.

“Night Moves” features another trademark, non-conclusive Kelly Reichardt ending. Yet the ambiguity comes with more implications this time. The final image of the film is Josh looking into a mirror at a man over his shoulder. Is this a plains-cloth cop? More likely, the last shot represents how Josh will be looking behind himself for the rest of his life. And what do we make of his decision to get a job in a camping goods store, after being told to disappear? Perhaps Josh is hoping to get caught, having already had enough of the guilt. That “Night Moves” suggest so much with so little, leaving a viewer with such beguiling questions, is another testament to its strength.

Though by far Reichardt's most accessible film, “Night Moves” did not break through to box office. It remained an indie darling. The film did, however, attract some legal attention. (And, no, not because it shares a title with a Gene Hackman/Arthur Penn movie.) A lawsuit claim the film plagiarized Edward Abbey's novel, “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” I haven't read the book but the plots seem similar, with wildly different tones. Ultimately, the matter was settled out of court. Regardless of its originality, the execution makes all the difference. “Night Moves” is the engrossing, disquieting thriller we all know Kelly Reichardt had in her. [Grade: A-]

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Director Report Card: Kelly Reichardt (2010)

4. Meek's Cutoff

Her indie cred long since established, with a considerable amount of critical respect under her belt, Kelly Reichardt was ready to tackle her most ambitious motion picture yet. The director would draw inspiration from a true, strange story from history. Meek's Cutoff was a wagon trail leading west branding off from the Oregon Trail, an alternate path designated for emigrants and so named for nature guide and fur trapper Stephen Meek. The trail was notoriously troubled by harsh conditions and illness. From these historical roots, Reichardt would weave another critically adored, low-key motion picture of quiet tension.

The year is 1845. A small group of emigrant settlers head across the Oregon desert, lead by a guide named Meek. Meek doesn't know the territory as well as he claims to and what should've been a standard two week journey stretches into two arduous months. Supplies run low, water especially becoming scarce. Paranoia and tension arise among the men, especially once an Indian is forced to join the group. Emily, wife of one of the settlers, attempts to be the voice of reason in the increasingly bad situation.

“Meek's Cutoff” falls into the western genre, with its tale of the wild frontier, terse men with six shooters, Indians and covered wagons. However, it's more accurately described as a survival story. Reichardt returns to her favorite theme for its most brutal variation yet. She introduces another protagonist that's trapped, as much by the circumstances around her as the physical environment. Yet the stakes are higher than ever before. Bad luck waits around every turn. Simple necessities like food and water are at risk. People die on this journey. “Meek's Cutoff” shows, in all too harsh details, how difficult the frontier life actually could be.

More than ever before, Reichardt focuses on the struggles women face. Emily, it often seems, is the only reasonable person on this entire journey. She is visibly unimpressed with Meek, as he tells blustery tales of killing Indians. She's the first person to see through his bullshit, foreshadowing that his knowledge of the trail is unimpressive too. As the story goes on, Meek growing more unhinged, violence nearly erupts between the two. In a key moment, Meek explains his expertise on women and Emily practically rolls her eyes. This is an apt summation of the entire film: This woman sees the truth but nobody listens to her, due to the sexism of the time. And all times.

If “Meek's Cutoff” is a examination of how sexism has crippled American progress, it has similar thoughts about frontier racism. In real life, the Meek's Cutoff path was chosen by settlers due to fears of an attack by the local tribes. In Reichardt's “Meek's Cutoff,” at least one of the women on the trail is driven into a fit from fear of the Indians. When the actual Indian joins the party, these fears only increase. Meek is belligerent to the man constantly, referring to him only as the heathen and talking about how all Indians are savages and killers. Yet he's the only one that's violent. The Indian quietly keeps to himself. He respects the dead. Moreover, he's the only one who actually seems to know where he's going. The reasonable peaceful indigenous people being hassled and attacked by white settlers that think they know better: The entire history of American expansion in miniature.

Yet Reichardt is not just commenting on America's general history in “Meek's Cutoff.” Her concerns, in fact, where on something far more recent. The film was, apparently, largely inspired by the George W. Bush administration. Once this knowledge is present, it becomes impossible not to see parallels. A head-strong but ultimately clueless man, a self-professed cowboy, leads all-too-trusting Americans into the desert. He's antagonistic to the local population, who know the territory much better than him. A character even utters the line “Stay the course” at a key moment. If the macho bullshit of the Bush II era pushed Reichardt to such frustration and anger, I can only imagine what her thoughts on our current ego-driven political quagmire is.

The quiet tension that occasionally took over “Wendy and Lucy” occupies all of “Meek's Cutoff.” Reichardt utilizes a number of tools to  increase this discomforting feeling. The film is shot in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, otherwise known as the Academy Ratio. The constricting black bars on both sides of the screen seems to squeeze the characters in, making them seem even more trapped than they appear. The night scenes are so dark, naturally lit, that you can barely see what's happening some times. Once again, the director places her characters as small figures in large, natural environments. The wagon train seems so small out in the desert, all the more vulnerable. The first scene in “Meek's Cutoff” shows the pioneers attempting to ford a river, setting up the atmosphere of hardship early on. The film is determined to make the viewer understand how hard this journey is for its characters, Reichardt's direction following suit.

Adding to this unsettling tone is the amazing sound design. Much like “Wendy and Lucy,” this film largely lacks a musical score. When music is heard, it's a low, throbbing, discordant note that only puts the viewer more on edge. Mostly, the aural landscape of “Meek's Cutoff” is devoted to the squeaking wheels of the wagons. It's a constant reminder of how uncomfortable this journey is for everyone. More than once, Reichardt assumes the perspective of the film's female characters as they watch the men in the distance, talking about something. Much like the women themselves, we can only hear far-off mumbling. Again, this puts the viewer right in the characters' position, of frustration and distrust.

After “Wendy and Lucy” proved to be such a fruitful collaboration, it only made sense that Reichardt would re-team with the actress here. If Wendy was largely a vulnerable character, Emily is much more driven. She's a deeply frustrated woman. Society dictates that women do nothing but take orders but Emily can only take so much of sitting and watching. Williams never raises her voice yet she gets across how forceful and strong a personality Emily is. As the reasonable P.O.V. into this doomed expedition, we couldn't have had a better one. Williams is, once again, fantastic.

For the first time, Reichardt teams with known movie stars in “Meek's Cutoff.” Aside from Williams, the supporting cast has several familiar faces in it. Bruce Greenwood plays Meek, adopting a gravelly voice and a huge, shaggy beard. If Meek ever has any doubts about his actions, Greenwood never let its show, creating a perfectly obnoxious wannabe leader. Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan appear as two of the would-be settlers, Kazan panicking well and Dano perfectly cast as a feckless man who just repeats what others say. Will Patton also reappears from “Wendy and Lucy,” as Emily's understanding but ultimately no-more-helpful husband.

The first time I saw “Meek's Cutoff,” I'll admit that I didn't like it. I had loved “Wendy and Lucy” and, perhaps, had gotten my hopes for Reichardt's follow-up too high. Mostly, my main contention with “Meek's Cutoff” is its glacial pacing. Running 103 minutes – normal by movie standards but long in comparison to Reichardt's first three features – not much really happens for most of it. With the lack of music, “Meek's Cutoff” becomes an especially stark and drawn-out viewing experience. This is, of course, exactly the point. The audience is meant to feel as frustrated and tired out as the characters. But it helps to know what you are getting into before seeing the film.

Similarly, don't expect an ending that wraps up loose ends. In real life, the settlers broke into two groups, suffered more deaths and hardships, but eventually reached their destinations. In Reichardt's film, she cuts it off just as they arrive at the fork in the journey. While Reichardt is clearly exercising her interest in simply dropping in on her characters' lives, this ending leaves “Meek's Cutoff” on an ominous note. As Emily watches the Indian wander off, and hears the rest of the settlers discuss continuing with Meek, a sense of dread settles in. This journey is doomed. While not satisfying on a narrative level, it sure does make an impact on an emotional level.

I think another reason I was disappointed in “Meeks' Cutoff” at first is that the A.V. Club, where I got most of my movie news at the time, hailed it as one of the best films of the year. Obviously, I did not get then what I was expecting. On the second viewing, I liked “Meek's Cutoff” a lot more. Functioning largely as a disquieting mood piece, and a commentary on American history old and more recent, it is certainly effective. After the emotional raw nerve of “Wendy and Lucy,” it pales a little in comparison. Yet I realize now that Reichardt and her film succeed at just what she set out to do. And she did it all with a PG rating too. [Grade: B]

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Director Report Card: Kelly Reichardt (2008)

3. Wendy and Lucy

While Kelly Reichardt had obviously carved out a respectable niche for herself with her first two features, neither of them made much of a splash outside the world of indie art houses. At least, I'm speaking for myself in this regard. I had never heard of the filmmaker before “Wendy and Lucy,” which strikes me as her most prominent breakthrough. Another collaboration with Larry Fessenden's Glass Eye Pix, it received rapturous reviews. Notably, it gained its star, Michelle Williams, some Oscar buzz. While Williams wouldn't get an actual nomination until she starred in more above-ground biopics, this extra attention did get me to see “Wendy and Lucy.” Which I'm happy about, as it's a fantastic film.

Wendy is a twenty-something drifter and Lucy is her beloved dog, her constant companion. Wendy is homeless and low-on-funds, her crumbling car being her only worldly possession. She is passing through a small Oregon town, on the way to find work in Alaska, when her car breaks down. She attempts to shoplift some food for herself and Lucy. She ends up caught by a nosy employee and spends the morning at the police station. Lucy was tied up outside and, when Wendy returns, her dog is gone. She spends the next two days desperately looking for Lucy, trying to get her car fixed, and trying to survive in a pitiless world.

“Wendy and Lucy” has something that neither “River of Grass” or “Old Joy” did. That's a narrative hook that's going to completely grab anybody who is a pet owner or animal lover. Have you ever had a beloved dog? Then surely you've experienced, or at least entertained, how painful it would be to loose such a darling four-legged friend. So “Wendy and Lucy” immediately grabs, sucking you into the emotional world of its characters. We instantly relate to Wendy's quest to find Lucy. We can't help but gasp and cry as she awakens in the middle of the night, thinking she might have heard her dear friend return to her. Simply put, “Wendy and Lucy” quietly and accurately captures the special bond we feel with our dogs and how heartbreaking it is when that bond is torn asunder.

“Wendy and Lucy” also continues the development of Reichardt's most consistent theme: People stuck in situations, philosophical and physical, that are not so easily escaped. The first shot in “Wendy and Lucy” is of a train pulling into station. This seems to suggest that nobody stays in this town for long. The dialogue supports this, Wendy making repeated references to “just passing through.” Despite the transient nature of this location, she sure is stuck here. Without funds to pay for her car repairs and without a cell phone, she has no easy way to leave. Once Lucy goes missing, Wendy is even more rooted in this place she has no intention of staying in. “Wendy and Lucy” depicts an all-too-familiar world, where inconveniences that might be minor to one person is utterly world-shattering to someone else.

After all, all it takes a string of bad luck to derails someone's life. Throughout the film, Wendy is continually hassled by people simply for the crime of existing where she's not wanted. After sleeping in her car in a parking lot, she's awoken by a security guard and told to move. The haughty, asshole supermarket employee says “the rules apply to everyone equally” when dragging Wendy before his boss for shoplifting. But that isn't true, because some people have it easy and others, like Wendy, suffer at every turn. She can't even use the bathroom in peace as, while changing in a public restroom, someone knocks on the door. Everywhere Wendy goes, someone is waiting to shut her down.

This is an example of something else “Wendy and Lucy” is about. Wendy is broke and looking for work. There's no work in this town, as her security guard friend tells her. Wendy can't afford a night in a hotel room, the repairs needed for her car, or even to buy food for her and Lucy. Early in the film, she encounters a group of other seemingly homeless youths living in the forest. “Wendy and Lucy” bracingly portrays the life many young people have experienced in the last two decades, as the decline of American capitalism has destroyed the middle class, the lack of reliable jobs and the rising cost of everything leaving many either in debt or without any safe shore to cling to.

“Wendy and Lucy” would be the first time I would really notice Michelle Williams as a performer, as I wasn't a “Dawson's Creek” watcher as a kid. Stripped of all her movie star glamour – hard to believe she'd play Marilyn Monroe just a few years later – Williams is heartbreakingly sincere as a young woman with few options. Much of the film is devoted to her face as she stares plaintively into the distance, always on the look-out for the lost Lucy. Yet she says so much with so little, the psychic storm inside – guilt, hopelessness, frustration – showing clearly with just a glance or nod. It's the kind of intuitive performance that signals the arrival of a bright new talent. (I was a bit slow on the pick-up here, as her turn in “Brokeback Mountain” had already earned Williams acclaim and an Oscar nomination by this point.)

Wendy doesn't encounter too much kindness throughout the film. Most people – teens walking along her car at night, the cops, the manager of the supermarket – are utterly ambivalent to her clear suffering. Yet, occasionally, she comes upon the kindness of strangers. The unnamed security guard, played with a folksy wisdom by Walter Dalton, helps her out several times. The woman at the animal shelter is kind to her. Yet even these gestures only mean so much. The guard gifts Wendy some money near the end... And it's all of six bucks. The mechanic, played by Will Patton, gives her a discount... On the deal to junk her car. Everyone in this world is strapped and they give what they can. But it's not much.

Though explicitly set outside of Portland, “Wendy and Lucy's” dead-end town could be any town in America. The locations are sparse, focusing on only a few buildings. The structure the security guard is protecting is an empty building of some sort. Anyone who lives in any one of the thousands of small towns left behind by progress will recognize this quiet form of destitution. Wendy dreams of heading to Alaska, hopeful that gainful employment and stability awaits her there. But what guarantee is there that Alaska will be any better than Oregon? There is a sense of hopelessness in “Wendy and Lucy,” that she hopes to escape one bad situation just to wander into another one. This is life for the poor and luckless in 21st century America.

“Wendy and Lucy's” naturalistic depiction of this all-too-realistic situation makes it a fairly bleak film. Locked inside this movie is a sequence that takes that uneasy feeling to a whole other level. While sleeping in the woods, as a last ditch effort to attract Lucy again, Wendy is accosted by a homeless man. He rambles incoherently at her, his mumbled speech peppered with warnings not to look at her. All Wendy can do is lay still and stare ahead, hoping this clearly unstable and unpredictable man leaves before he hurts her. It's like a mini-horror movie, tense and unsettling, existing in the middle of this lo-fi drama. Rather fittingly, Reichardt cast Larry Fessenden – her old “River of Grass” leading man, weird looking dude, and horror expert – as the fittingly disturbing middle-of-the-night interloper. This was the first hint that Reichardt had the skills to create a successful thriller.

Reichardt's visual sense remains especially well-suited to melancholy and naturalistic stories like this. In “Wendy and Lucy,” she continues to place her characters as distant figures in wide, green landscapes. This only heightens Wendy's isolation, especially once Lucy disappears. The lack of a musical score, Wendy's half-hearted humming being the only consistent soundtrack (save for a throbbing synth piece that plays over the end credits), further emphasizes her loneliness. Reichardt's camera isn't exactly still though. Several times, such as a deeply sad walk through the pond or a sudden pan to the left while Wendy wanders around a building, she beautifully engineers moving shots. These scenes seem to go hand-in-hand with how lost her protagonist feels.

“Wendy and Lucy” is a movie that will probably make you cry, because it has such a keen grip on the grim reality of its setting and you feel so much for its title characters. But no scene will make you cry harder than the end. Wendy finally finds Lucy... She's been adopted by a seemingly well-to-do family, who have a fenced up backyard and a nice house. Wendy makes the deeply difficult decision to leave her closest friend there, where she'll be safe, then risk loosing her on the road again. Jesus, just typing that out makes my eyes water. It's not melodrama or cheap emotional manipulation. It's a heart-breaking climax to everything that came before, to an innocent girl existing in a world that doesn't prioritize poor people like her.

By the way, Lucy is played by Reichardt's own dog, who is also named Lucy and previously appeared in “Old Joy.” I am sure Lucy is a very sweet girl. “Wendy and Lucy” is a film that has a huge emotion affect on me every time I watch it. Granted, I'm a dog person so I'm an easy mark for a story like this. Yet Reichardt so perfectly captures the down-to-earth, everyday struggles with a keen and realistic eye. Combined with Williams' heart-shattering performance and a perfectly stark presentation, you have one of the best independent films of the 2000s. Reichardt's reputation would rightfully skyrocket after this one. Watch it, cry, and then hug your dog afterwards. [Grade: A]

Monday, July 13, 2020

Director Report Card: Kelly Reichardt (2006)

2. Old Joy

Despite “River of Grass” receiving an enthusiastic reaction from critics, Kelly Reichardt had difficulty securing funding for another feature film. Twelve years would pass before her next feature length film would debut. In that time, simply to prove she could still make movies, she directed two super-8 shorts: “Ode,” an adaptation of “Ode to Bobbie Joe” that is just shy of feature length at 50 minutes, and the experimental “Then a Year.” Finally, in 2006, Reichardt would get a chance to create the proper follow-up to “River of Grass.” “Old Joy” would also become a critical darling and truly be the breakthrough the filmmaker was looking for.

Mark and Kurt were, once, extremely close friends, both of them living a hippy-ish lifestyle. However, the two have grown apart in more recent years. Mark has married and his wife is expecting their first child, while Kurt continues to live a bohemian existence. Out of the blue, Mark receives a phone call from Kurt. He invites him on a hike through the Cascade Mountains, to a remote spa. Mark agrees and, while walking through the forest, the two realize the ways they have changed and the ways they've stayed the same.

“Old Joy” is another one of Kelly Reichardt's “snapshot” movies. Much like her debut, a decade earlier, the film's run time is brief at around the seventy minute mark. We drop in on our protagonists' lives, spend a few days with them, and then we drop back out. We never learn more about Mark's relationship with his wife. The only details we discover concerning the men's friendships are what they discuss during their trip. They reference mysterious old acquaintances and past adventures. This provides a lived-in, detailed quality to “Old Joy.” These characters have pasts, memories, experiences. We may not see them but they are there, the film providing only a peek of a more detailed world.

What most struck me about “Old Joy” is the bittersweet quality that runs through the entire movie. This is a story characterized by the sense that one story is ending while another is beginning. Mark and his wife are about to become parents. He has a house now, a real job. Kurt, meanwhile, belongs to a different world, wilder and with fewer responsibilities. While the film never confirms as much, Mark and Kurt's friendship is ending. They belong to different worlds now, which don't seem likely to intersect again. This weekend hike is their final adventure together. “Old Joy” captures a feeling anyone that has had a long friendship slowly erode over time can relate to.

As in “Rivers of Grass,” Reichardt focuses in on characters who feel trapped by their lots in life. Even if their friendship seems destined to wither, Mark and Kurt have plenty of things in common. We only get a brief glimpse of Mark's married life but it hardly seems pleasant. In their one scene together, he nearly gets into a fight with his pregnant wife about his old friendship. Mark is clearly not totally prepared to become a father. Kurt, meanwhile, seems unable to adapt to traditional society. He's getting too old now to be a hippy vagabond but settled life doesn't seem to suit him much either. There's no easy escapes from the paths both men are on.

Since it's about two main characters who are very different, “Old Joy” is a film about contrast. During its opening credits, as Mark drives to the meeting place, he listens to noisy and loud talk radio. This is quite different from the quiet of the forest that characterizes most of the film. Thus, the urban and wooded locations the story takes place in are established as very different places. In the final scene, Kurt returns to the city, seeming out-of-place. The green peace of the forest stands in stark contrast to the concrete crowds of urban life. Just as Mark and Kurt find themselves on different paths in life, “Old Joy” shows the stark divide in their mutual environments too.

Throughout the film, there seems to be something unsaid between Mark and Kurt. We never learn precisely why the two drifted apart, if there was any inciting incidents that created a wedge or if they just slowly stopped interacting. They were clearly close but a strange tension is between them throughout. This unspoken enmity climaxes once the two guys get to the hot spring. Both men in the nude, Kurt goes to massage Mark's shoulders. It's the homoerotic encounter the entire film has been building towards, a moment of intimacy between the two men that seems inevitable. Whether this is a pay-off to years of not-so-platonic longing or a repeat of a past event, we are only left to guess. Yet “Old Joy” seems to quietly question the manly affection, and the male psyche's difficulty sometimes with processing it, that inevitably floats underneath most longtime male friendships.

These quiet moments are not the only insights into our characters' lives we get in “Old Joy.” While sitting around the fire place, Mark and Kurt goof around. They smoke, drink, and fire Nerf guns at piles of beer cans. This leads into “Old Joy's” most vocal sequence. Kurt delivers a rambling monologue about the nature of the universe, as he perceives it. In a usually quiet film, it's a noticeably talky moment. This not only gives us insight into how Kurt's mind works – he really seems to be a burned-out hippy – but it seems to be a genuine moment. I have no idea how tightly Reichardt scripts her films but this conversations sure seem improvised. “Old Joy” accurately captures the long digressions friends can get into when they talk for hours.

Once again, Kelly Reichardt casts her tiny indie film with largely unknown actors. Daniel London plays Mark. London has carved out a decent career for himself as a character actor without gaining much recognition. As Mark, he captures a perpetual sense of unease. London creates the feeling that this guy is never totally comfortable in his own skin. If anyone needs a visit to a hot spring, it's him. Yet he also has an everyman quality that makes him easy to relate too. Mark could be just about any dude you know, a little uneasy but functioning as best as he can in a demanding world.

Co-starring alongside London is Will Oldham as Kurt. Oldham seems to work just as often as a musician but has cropped up in multiple independent flicks over the years. Compared to the quiet Mark, Oldham has the undoubtedly showier part. Kurt gets to ramble on about his odd philosophies and old hippy friends of both men. Yet Oldham also summons up a quieter sense of melancholy. Kurt is aware that he is increasingly becoming an anachronism, in a world that's changing faster than he can adapt. Without drawing too much attention to it, Oldham hints at this discomfort. It's the most easily high-lighted aspect of a nuanced performances.

As always, Reichardt watches the proceedings with a patient, focused eye. One of the shorts she made during her lengthy break from features was “Then a Year.” That short played sound clips from true crime shows over blurry footage of trees and animals. In some ways, “Old Joy” feels like a natural extension of that idea. Often, she depicts her human characters as distant figures moving through the lush, bright green Pacific Northwest woods. This interest in nature continues “Old Joy's” fascination with contrast, the two men standing out among the totally natural environments. As always, Reichardt's interest in taking her time and focusing on the world around the cast creates a keen sense of location, of time and place.

The biggest marquee name in “Old Joy” isn't any of the actors in front of the camera or even necessarily the director behind it. It's the band scoring the film. Yo La Tengo, those critically acclaimed lo-fi indie rockers, provides the music. I'm not really a fan of the band but their particular style seems especially well suited to the film. The sparse guitars of “Leaving Home,” eventually evolving into a driving melody, suit the wandering tone of the film well. Tracks like “Getting Lost” or “Driving Home” are a lot more like what I'd expect from the band, as far as vaguely pretty but largely directionless musical expression goes. The end credits theme has a lot more energy then you'd expect, while still matching the laid-back atmosphere of the film it accompanies.

“Old Joy” is one of those movies that you appreciate more as you re-watch it. On a first viewing, it's a quiet – maybe too quiet – and touching drama. Repeat viewings show that it has more depth than you initially realize. It says  a lot about masculine friendships and continues to show how Reichardt's themes developed in-between her first feature and its belated follow-up. It became another critically acclaimed drama that, naturally, nobody but devoted film fans saw. Of course, now it's in the Criterion Collection and Reichardt's profile has only grown, meaning more people than ever are probably checking out “Old Joy” now. [Grade: B+]

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Director Report Card: Kelly Reichardt (1994)

Earlier this year, I reviewed the films of Debra Granik, that master of naturalistic stories of women surviving distinctly American hardships. Yet some have accused Granik of largely ripping her style off of another critically acclaimed female director that specializes in similarly naturalistic and feminist ideas. Not that I think Kelly Reichardt and Debra Granik are intentionally copying one another or anything but, after doing a retrospective for one, it did seem fair for me to cover the other.

Reichardt is, of course, one of the most critically acclaimed independent filmmaker of the last decade. Among a certain type of film fan that adores thoughtful indie dramas, she has acquired a serious reputation. I'm more touch-and-go on Reichardt, sometimes finding her films a little too digressive, but I'm usually a fan. With her latest release, the much-hyped “First Cow,” being released onto V.O.D., now seems like a good time to look back at her career.

1. River of Grass

Kelly Reichardt would study photography before entering the film program at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston. Not long after graduating, she would make her feature debut. “River of Grass” would be critically acclaimed upon release in 1994. It would be nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, earn three Independent Spirit Award nominations, and top several prominent Best Of list. The film emerged seemingly from out of nowhere, won praise, and then disappeared back into nowhere... Or perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's look back at Reichardt's distinctive debut.

Cozy's life has been one of minor tragedy. Her mother walked out when she was young. She married right out of high school and now has three kids she feels no connection with. Bored, she wanders off to a bar one night in her Floridian home town. There she meets Lee, who recently turned thirty but struggles with arrested development. Lee recently found a gun – which, coincidentally, belongs to Cozy's police detective father – and shows it to Cozy while chilling in a stranger's pool. The pistol goes off and the two fear they fatally shot someone. The tossed-together couple try to go on the run together, attempting to become outlaws, but the journey is far from smooth.

“River of Grass” is clearly a riff on a particular genre. That would be the “lovers on the run” movie, with “Badlands” being its most obvious ancestor. However, Reichardt seems to be deconstructing elements of this story. “River of Grass” is a road movie without much road. Despite their best efforts, our mismatched hero and heroine never make it far out of Florida. They can't raise much gas money, staying stuck inside a flea-bitten motel for most of the movie. The film's climax doesn't involve a dramatic car chase... But a cop slowly stopping the couple after they nearly run through a tollgate. “River of Grass” intentionally subverts the tension of its premise.

It does this in more ways than one. If this is a road movie without the road, then it's also a crime movie without much crime. We learn fairly early on that the plot-motivating act of manslaughter never actually occurred. The gun went off but nobody was killed, the supposed victim not even interested in pressing charges. Later, Lee's attempt to stick up a gas station goes awry when someone else beats him to the punch, the guy getting his ass kicked in the process. A late film encounter with a  traffic cop deflates spectacularly when the guy says he's only annoyed at them for nearly running through a tollbooth without paying. The only life the two actually take in the course of a story is a mouse in the hotel room, and Cozy's not even sure about that. “River of Grass” flips audience expectations totally on their head. Cozy and Lee are outlaws on the run from... Nothing much at all.

“River of Grass,” in fact, subverts just about every preconceived notion you have of the “outlaw lovers” genre. Are Cozy and Lee lovers at all? I can't even recall if they kiss. They get pretty close to each other in the pool but that's the extent of their physical intimacy. There's certainly never a love scene. If Cozy and Lee are romantically attracted to each other, the film never depicts it. Cozy seems outright ambivalent to her would-be partner-in-crime at times, such as a scene where she lays in the hotel room bed and ignores him. Lee, meanwhile, never makes much in the way of romantic overtures to her. “River of Grass'” duo are so aimless, they don't even seem certain about their feelings for one another.

Honestly, I was quite surprised by how funny “River of Grass” is. Chuckles are, admittedly, not what I expect from a master of working-class naturalism like Reichhardt. But her debut does, indeed, feature some laughs. The aforementioned stick-up attempt goes off the rails so spectacularly, you can't help but laugh. The film frequently mines Lee's ineptitude for humor. The constant way he dodges paying the motel manager grows increasingly desperate as the film goes on. He can't even successfully sell a set of old record albums. Cozy is a slight space-case too, performing random somersaults or handstands out of boredom. These characters are eccentric, maybe even “kooky,” and “River of Grass” mines a quiet sense of humor from them.

The attribute “River of Grass” most has in common with Reichhardt's later films, aside from its compact run time, is its innate sense of location. The film is set in Broward County, Florida, in-between the sweaty wetlands of the Everglades and the bustling nightlife of Miami. The indigenous people called this area the river of grass – hence the title – but now it's mostly just dead-end towns and freeways heading off to more interesting places. We see these dingy motels, simple homes, and stretches of endless highway. Just from its photography, you get the sense that “River of Grass” is about people who are either stuck in this place or can't leave. Reichhardt grew up in this area herself and that kind of familiarity – I'm not sure I'd call it “affection” exactly – is evident in the movie.

“River of Grass” would begin Kelly Reichardt's habit of foregoing recognizable movie stars for unknown performers. Lisa Bowman has largely worked in television, this being one of only three theatrical films she has appeared in. Bowman's performance is subdued. She plays Cozy as someone so accustomed to her lot in life, that she can hardly vocalize her rebellion. Instead, Cozy relates her dissatisfaction through the droll voice-over narration. Bowman brings a fittingly eccentric and small-town voice to that interior monologue. Her frustrations bubbles over in her manic actions, her child-like burst of physical exercise. Bowman has a certain quality that is captivating, seeming as much like a regular person that has ever appeared on a cinema screen.

Something Bowman really gets across, in subtle ways, is Cozy's dissatisfaction with her life. Through her narration, we learn that Cozy rushed into marriage with a high school sweetheart, quickly giving birth to three children. Yet this suburban existence was never anything she wanted.  When looking through the album covers Lee has stolen from his aunt, the camera lingers on vintage images of 1950s pin-up girls there. Here is yet another traditional image of femininity that Cozy feels no kinship with. By attempting to run away with Lee, Cozy is fleeing the lifestyle – of being a housewife or another object of masculine pleasure – that doesn't suit her. That the town is so tricky to leave, at least until Cozy cast off Lee, is a symbol of how difficult it is for women to be free of these paths society has chosen for them.

“River of Grass” is also one of the rare times I've reviewed a film that stars another director I've studied. In addition to directing smart and grisly indie horror movies, Larry Fessenden has also carved out a decent career for himself as a character actor. (Fessenden also co-produced and edited the film, making his appearance in front of the camera no coincidence.) As an actor, Fessenden has a certain uneasy energy that works well for the kind of roles he usually plays. He certainly does a good job of capturing someone who has no idea what they are doing. Fessenden can be both shifty but oddly charming too, making it easy to see why Cozy might be attracted to a man like Lee, even if he quickly proves he's kind of an idiot.

As a visual stylist, Kelly Reichardt seems to have two modes. There are many stretches of “River of Grass” that are practically still. Reichardt often simply watches her characters interact, such as in long scenes where Cozy and Lee are sitting at the bar, getting to know each other. Or when she presents the pictures and memories from Cozy's life. Other times, “River of Grass” is characterized by bursts of movement. Such a the sight of highway overpasses blurring together, as our duo drives along side them. Reichardt even includes chapter stops throughout, which are decorated with bullet holes, an almost self-conscious riff on the kind of crime stories “River of Grass” most definitely is not.

Another element of “River of Grass” that would become a trademarks of Reichardt's is the abrupt ending. The director has, more than once, described her films as simply brief snapshots of her characters' lives. We're stopping in for a little bit and spending some time with them. Here, the film wraps up directly after its most sudden, blunt moment. It feels like a punchline to a shaggy joke, the sudden burst of violence that the rest of “River of Grass'” breakdown of crime movie plotting was denying us. It's also the moment where Cozy breaks free totally of the masculine-created world she was trapped in, making it a logical point to exit on.

Following its critically praised festival run and theatrical limited release, “River of Grass” would become somewhat hard to find. The film was only available as an out-of-print VHS tape for many years. In 2015, the film would be restored, via a Kickstarter campaign, for a Blu Ray edition and an accompanying theater run. This would give “River of Grass” its widest release yet, allowing the partially forgotten movie to be rediscovered as a minor classic of the 90s indie film movement. It's a very good film, an ambitious debut that smartly plays with what the audience expectations while having some interesting things of its own worth saying. [Grade: B]