J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Reichardt’s River of Grass

Cozy Cole just might be the only jazz drummer to hit the charts with a drum solo recording. He played with everyone, from Louis Armstrong to Benny Carter to Cab Calloway. Therefore, he was a fine choice for jazz drummer turned police detective Jimmy Ryder to name his daughter after. Of course, a name like Cozy could lead to certain assumptions, but the dissatisfied wife and mother might be okay with that. She is looking for trouble and kind of-sort of finds it in Kelly Reichardt’s digitally restored debut film, River of Grass (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Cozy just doesn’t care anymore, even though her husband and father are still respectably plugging away. Unfortunately, Det. Ryder is in a bit of an awkward spot, having lost his department revolver, much like Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, but under much more embarrassing circumstances. The missing piece soon finds its way to Lee Ray Harold, a slacker who still lives with his mother. He might have a serial killer name, but he has none of the drive or resourcefulness.

To make up for nearly hitting Cozy on the way to a roadhouse, Harold offers to buy her a drink. One beer leads to many and soon they are crashing strangers’ backyard pools. When Harold’s old high school teacher barges in on them, Cozy accidentally takes a shot at him. Believing the unscathed pool owner is dead, Cozy and Harold resolve to go on the lam, as soon as they can raise a little money.

During their four days spent laying low, the two aspiring outlaws only manage to rack up a few petty crimes. They are more Nancy and Sluggo than Bonnie and Clyde. However, Ryder is still jumpy with his gun and his daughter still at-large. It doesn’t make him feel much better when he discovers the two issues are closely linked.

Arguably, River came along at the perfect time in 1994, when just about any fusion of quirkiness and noir could find a sympathetic critical champion. In retrospect, it feels very much of its time. There are some clever bits and the self-consciously over-the-top narration is amusing, but the ambling narrative feels old hat by now.

Ironically, the old school jazz helps keep it all somewhat fresh. Like the character of Ryder, Dick Russell was once a professional jazz drummer and he performs several of the drum solos that propel the film forward. Frankly, he is the undiscovered discovery of River. It turns out there were also a number of swing and trad players in the Everglades area during the mid-1990s, who nicely set the mood during the film’s several jazz club scenes.

Of course, it is also slightly mind-blowing to see a young, brief-wearing Larry Fessenden turn up as Harold. Even then, he had that spark of dangerousness. In contrast, Lisa Bowman is more compelling during her voice-overs than she is on-screen. Her Cozy is never developed with any depth, remaining a perversely self-centered malcontent. Regardless, River often sounds terrific, but it looks rather drab. More of a time capsule curiosity, River of Grass is mostly recommended for diehard fans of Reichardt and small group swing in the Jonah Jones tradition (Cole worked with him too), when it opens this Friday (3/11) at the IFC Center.

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