"Kinda in limbo right now." "Limbo. That sounds nice." In the course of her 1994 debut River of Grass, the writer-director Kelly Reichardt staked out the Florida Everglades (the river of the title, in Native American speak) to do something a little more impressionistic with the standard lovers-on-the-run crime drama: the result would prove to be something like Badlands remade by a filmmaker who felt Badlands was still too much of a rollercoaster ride, a procedural in no particular hurry at all. Three lives come to intersect: that of a petty crook (Larry Fessenden, on his way to becoming a low-budget auteur in his own right) who robs a cash register and returns to his mom's house to hide out; a detective (Dick Russell) who would be on the crook's tail, if he could only rouse himself from his barstool and find the gun he's lost; and the detective's daughter (Lisa Bowman), a bored mother-of-two whose life changes forever after she crosses county lines one night, and breaks a heel in the process.
We should probably make allowances for the vagaries of low-budget early 90s filmmaking: the film hasn't dated entirely well, and when it finally made its UK debut in April 2012, screening in a post-midnight slot on Film4 as part of a Reichardt retrospective, the image jammed and flickered at one point, as though being played back on VHS. We also have to conclude that the decade that elapsed between River and Reichardt's follow-up Old Joy did this filmmaker a power of good, obliging her to further pare away at an aesthetic which here extends to a self-consciously poetic voiceover, and one or two clunky semi-professional performances too many. Yet River of Grass still fascinates as the first stage of an ongoing experiment on movie character, and how that may be revealed as much through inaction as action - a subversion of that very male, Hawksian rule that may be Reichardt's most radical and valuable contribution to the contemporary American scene. (If that sounds overly academic, well, Reichardt is just more serious and studious about this than, say, the Linklater/Kevin Smith model of slackerdom, emerging around the same time.)
The film gets its energy from the wild-maned, gaptoothed Fessenden - a budget Nicholson imitating Belmondo in Pierrot le Fou - and his ability to clamber into and rearrange any given location, but Reichardt means to show how all this energy doesn't get him anywhere: his inability to pull the trigger when it counts costs him dearly (hell, these lovers-on-the-run don't even screw, and you can make of that what you will), literally and amusingly so in the movies' first ever convenience-store gazumping. In the meantime, we get drunken conversation, drifting in swimming pools, lethargic smoking and napping in motel rooms, and a certain amount of staring into the mirror, as our heroine (capably fleshed out by Bowman, a dozier Patricia Arquette) gradually discovers the grass isn't notably greener on the wilder side of life. As a country number titled "Lingering" floats over the soundtrack, these lovers will grasp there's nowhere much to run now they've set up tolls on the road. It may finally be crucial that the detective is a part-time jazz drummer (and gets a montage in which to demonstrate his skills): as with Reichardt's later, more celebrated works, River of Grass finds its own offbeat rhythms, and then quietly, admirably sticks to them.
River of Grass screens as part of the Kelly Reichardt retrospective at the BFI Southbank tonight at 8.50pm, and on Saturday at 2.30pm; Reichardt's latest film, Certain Women, opens in selected cinemas from Friday, and will be reviewed here in due course.