What’s startling about “River of Grass” is how deadpan funny it is. This is, after all, the 1994 debut of Kelly Reichardt, a filmmaker who would have her breakthroughs over a decade later with humane but minimalist art-house fables like “Old Joy” (2006) and “Wendy and Lucy” (2008). Reichardt’s movies are full of lost souls wandering in circles, sometimes spiritually and sometimes (as with the 19th-century pioneers of 2010’s “Meek’s Cutoff”) quite literally. The director’s little-seen first film, arriving Friday in a restored version at the Brattle for a weekend run, finds dark humor in the wandering.
It’s an intentionally sloppy, slaphappy kiss-off to Reichardt’s Florida roots and a droll deconstruction of lovers-on-the-lam movies, the filmmaker taking “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Badlands,” and a bunch of early Godard movies out to the landfill on a muggy day. Lisa Bowman, who was working as a waitress when she was cast, plays a bored-to-tears housewife and mother named Cozy, whose banal narration fills the soundtrack as if it were something to kill the time.
One county over is Lee (Larry Fessenden), a layabout who lives with his grandmother until she kicks him out. Fessenden, who would go on to a lively career as a character actor and director of cult horror movies like 2001’s “Wendigo,” has a long, jellybean-shaped face, droopy hair, and a snaggle-toothed grin; he looks like rocker Nick Cave’s younger, mouthier brother and he has a loser’s kind of charm. He meets Cozy in a bar, where he confesses “I’m kind of in limbo now.” “Limbo. That sounds nice,” she replies.
There’s a crime (but not the way they think) and soon the two are on the road, for 10 minutes or so, until they run out of money. The camerawork (by Jim Denault) sees things freshly and fluidly, the shots moving as if the director were searching for the exits. Bowman’s Cozy is so resolutely average that she becomes oddly carnal, the sum of her inarticulate wants.
Further attempts at larceny come to naught, mostly because Lee’s too shy. A lawman is on their tail, but it’s Cozy’s depressive father, Jimmy (Dick Russell), whose gun goes missing early and gets passed among the characters like a cold. Jimmy’s a jazz drummer by avocation, and Reichardt uses his percussion solos to fuel the movie and give it a forward momentum that’s largely illusory. No one here is going anywhere.
“River of Grass,” which takes its name from the Everglades the characters rub up against, retools genre into a middle-American Zen koan. What happens to the crime film if you take out the crime, the romance, the sex, the action, the suspense — all the interesting bits? On one level, Reichardt’s answer is simply: Florida. But she keeps scraping away until the movie uncovers a hapless sweetness in Lee and a rage boiling away in Cozy. This is rough, first-time filmmaking, and it knows exactly where it’s going.
RIVER OF GRASS
Directed by Kelly Reichardt. Written by Reichardt and Jesse Hartman. Starring Lisa Bowman, Larry Fessenden, Dick Russell. At the Brattle. 76 minutes. Unrated (nudity, language, wasted lives).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.