While the convergence of independent and mainstream cinema in the digital era has opened up all kinds of new possibilities and opportunities for professional mobility, it has also tended to throw the independent American cinema of the 1980s and early 1990s into more austere and sublime relief. More than any American movement since the great European New Waves of the 1960s and 1970s, this was a New Wave in spirit and momentum, with the emergence of directors like Hal Hartley, Kelly Reichardt, Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson unthinkable during any other moment in post-WWII American cinema. Like so many of their French and Italian forebears – as well as American countercultural staples such as Easy Rider and Badlands – these directors often turned to fugitive narratives as a way of slackening and loosening the kinds of narrative, characterisation and subjectivity that were so tightly standardised and formalised at this moment in Hollywood history. In large part, that was because fugitive films typically thrive on open-ended narrative structures, journeys whose destinations tend to disperse as they proceed, movements away from an opening scenario that don’t necessarily transform into movements towards any definitive or climactic final scenario. At the same time, the fact that fugitive films also share certain traits with other crime genres – violence, car chases, romantic chemistry – made them a perfect venue for independent cinema to calibrate its difference from Hollywood demands and expectations. It’s no coincidence, then, that two of the most pivotal moments in the case for a mainstream independent audience would turn out to be Bonnie and Clyde and then Thelma and Louise some twenty years later, with both films starting out as more or less conventional Hollywood crime thrillers but quickly dissolving predictable narrative mechanics into a more open-ended and emergent ambience.
While River of Grass may therefore recall a great number of indie films, the fugitive narrative here is far more perfunctory than in any of its forebears, with the “crime” that sets the action in place barely making a dent in the film’s loose, dispersed ambience, just as the resultant flight is almost immediately absorbed back into Reichardt’s vision of the Miami-Dade suburban sprawl. As a result, River of Grass often plays as the last note in a certain lineage of American independent cinema – the last real progeny of Easy Rider – which is presumably one of the reasons why Reichardt would wait another twelve years before releasing Old Joy, a work that seemed to usher in a new independent movement just as River of Grass had concluded one, especially with the addition of Wendy and Lucy two years later. While that exhaustion and consummation of the independent impulse partly comes down to Reichardt’s own ambient proclivities, it’s also a function of the Everglades backdrop, which is in many ways the real subject matter and protagonist of the film, exuding a languorous, drifting atmosphere that turns the sheer act of documenting it into an exercise in indie aesthetics, since it’s hard to think of another region of the country that so perfectly captures the existential naturalism that characterised American independent cinema as a whole at this particular moment in time.
While that backdrop is in a certain sense autobiographical – Reichardt grew up in Coral Gables – it’s more in the way that it plays as a tone poem to Miami-Dade County than in any strictly narrative manner. In fact, River of Grass has barely any story at all, just a couple of notional characters – Cozy (Lisa Bowman), a disenchanted housewife and Lee (Larry Essenden), another directionless local, who meet in a bar and then go on the lam after convincing themselves they’ve shot somebody. As they drift from vignette to vignette, Reichardt curates an astonishing array of fixtures, objects, signage and infrastructure, all of which converge on the spectacle of the latest freeway projects, which spur Cozy and Lee’s dreams of flight in the first place and stand in for all the narrative directionality and determinism that the characters and film appear to lack. Given how much we tend to associate freeway iconography with Los Angeles – at least in American cinema – there is something startling about the spectacle of these massive overpasses and offramps, not least because they are still in the process of construction, which often elevates them into the kinds of surreal vistas that hung around the fringes of Italian neorealism, whose thwarted road trips were often designed to texture out exactly the kinds of futuristic infrastructural horizons on display here.
Of course, the film pointedly never lives up to the potential of these freeways, which in many ways are antithetical to the particular version of Miami-Dade County that Reichardt elaborates, if only because they are the only definitive vision of a way out. In many ways, the entire fugitive narrative exists purely as a way of setting up the Miami-Dade threshold, as well as the threshold of Greater Miami, only for it to dissolve back into the wider ambience of the Everglades. Confounding land, sea and sky, the River of Grass – as the region has been known since an iconic geographical and cultural study in the late 1940s – lends its protean logic to every space and landscape in the film, especially when combined with the endless Florida suburban sprawl. While Reichardt might subordinate any kind of linear narrative to her elaboration of this landscape, this is simultaneously a landscape that defies any kind of linear treatment on its own terms, to the point where the suburban sprawl simply feels like a natural extension of the Everglades, or the only kind of human development that could ever be plausibly grafted onto the Everglades.
What ensues is a freeform ambience and momentum that is driven more by contiguity than continuity, as Reichardt moves from one limbic state to the next and one pocket of beautifully contoured emptiness to another, imbuing everything with an edge of strangeness, an absurd naturalism, that is never quite contained or resolved, with the voiceovers that nominally cohere the action starting out autobiographical but quickly turning cryptic, like flash fiction gems spoken aloud. Although mile after mile tract housing passes us by in periodic segments shot from the passenger seat, there’s never any sense of narrative teleology or forward momentum, creating a kind of directionless direction that would become integral to Reichardt’s body of work, in what she has described as a “road movie without the road.” In fact, watching River of Grass made me realise that all Reichardt’s intensely regionalist portraits of the United States – most of which revolve around Oregon and the Pacific Northwest – are driven by an intensely Floridian atmosphere and ambience, a vision of the nation from the perspective of the Gulf that always makes her characters feels somewhat marginal and minor.
Critical to that directionless direction is the way in which Reichardt refuses to allow the road to become a destination in itself, with the film never permitting itself to embrace the full sublimity of the freeways nor to completely venture into the Everglades, leading to a beautiful conclusion in which Cozy and Lee are forced to turn back at the last toll plaza before the freeway after not having enough money to pay the toll. With grand vistas beckoning, the final sequence takes place on the road shoulder, before the duo head back to Miami, where they end up in a traffic jam of late afternoon commuters that forms the backdrop to the last voiceover in the film: “Suddenly I wasn’t sure of anything…I wasn’t on the lam anymore and if I was nobody cared…If we weren’t killers we weren’t anything.” In an earlier independent outing, that might have created a sense of pointed anticlimax or studied deflation – an alienation effect – but here even that impulse has been collapsed, despite itself, into Reichardt’s particular brand of ambience, just as the United States has been entirely subsumed into her version of the Miami-Dade sprawl, which still feels utterly mercurial and mysterious some twenty years later.