Kelly Reichardt, in recent years, has established herself as one of the leading names of independent American cinema. All her movies, whether they be the slow almost neo-realist dramas (Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy) for which she made her name or the grander in scope pictures she followed them up with, share common themes – most notably the clash between men and women and the relationship between humans and their environment. Critic Brian Tallerico, reviewing a re-issue of Reichardt’s debut feature River of Grass, stated succinctly:
“Reichardt’s films all feature, either blatantly or sub-textually, a natural world that is going on regardless of what humans do on top of it … her films seem to suggest that life existed long before you met these [characters] and will go on long after their drama has unfolded. We are but a speck in a universe that cares little about us.”
To celebrate the release of her latest work, the beautiful and haunting triptych Certain Women (released March 3), I will delve into her filmography to recommend three of her best movies.
Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
“We’re all just playing our parts now. This was written long before we got here.”
Reichardt’s first and only period piece to date – feminist revisionist western Meek’s Cutoff centres upon Emily and Solomon Tetherow (Michelle Williams, Will Patton), a married couple part of a group of travellers (including Paul Dano and Shirley Henderson) in 1845 searching for new land. Their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is a charismatic story-teller, recounting tales of killer bears and murderous Indians. However, when the planned two-week journey stretches into five, the group begins to suspect Meek may not know where he is going. Tensions rise when the gang capture a lone Indian, someone who could possibly lead them to fresh water but also into a trap.
One of the greatest Westerns of recent memory and perhaps one of the most authentic ever, Reichardt accomplishes with gusto a difficult task in Meek’s Cutoff. She manages to capture the slowness and arduous nature of the time-period, where travelling took weeks at a time and every task such as washing clothes and gathering water is done by hand. With a lesser filmmaker, this could be dull, yet, Reichardt manages to make it beautiful and riveting. The way she constantly positions her characters like dots against a vastly sublime landscape is amazing (a recurring visual in her filmography). On top of this, the script by herself and author Jon Raymond is a marvel to behold, featuring wonderful authentic dialogue but also very interesting shifts in the power dynamic between its characters. Watching Michelle Williams’ intelligent and wise Emily gradually become the leader of the travelling group, seizing the title away from the likeable but foolish Meek, is immensely satisfying to watch.
Night Moves (2013)
“You know how many golf courses there are in Portland? 29. It’s the High Plains Desert. Where’s the water?”
Undoubtedly, the most-fast paced film of Reichardt’s career, eco-thriller Night Moves sees the director doubling down on her exploration of environments, turning what was once sub-text into text. The Dostoevskian influenced tale sees three nature activists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) and their plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam. The first hour of the film focuses on the planning of the explosion, while the second examines the tragic repercussions of the act.
What makes Night Moves incredibly gripping is Reichardt’s meditative direction – which surprisingly works wonders for her and writer Jon Raymond’s eco-terrorist centred script. A more traditional filmmaker would implement fast cutting and action sequences to create excitement. Yet, Reichardt instead relies on long takes and drawn-out scenes of characters performing tasks. Again like Meek’s Cutoff these are things which could lead to tedium but here, due to the almost spy antics of its central characters, actually translate to tension. She captures the laborious and painstaking nature of planning such a monumental task but also the paranoia that comes with it, where a simple mistake could land one in prison for life. The central scene, where the explosives are planted, is tense mainly because it’s so quiet but also because it just goes on and on.
It’s also a very rich film thematically. There’s the Dostoevskian existentialism embedded into the story – can an unlawful act be permissible when it’s in pursuit of a higher purpose and can a person continue everyday life with the knowledge of having committed a murder (Fanning’s character’s guilt manifests itself in a violent rash). There is also the exploration of how good values and idealism can become muddied and warped. Plus, in brief moments, Reichardt and Raymond seem to be commenting on how big business commercialises nature, sanitising it to make it more palatable. Not many filmmakers have the capacity to juggle tension, an intimate character drama and dense themes with such panache.
Certain Women (2017)
“It would be so lovely to think that if I were a man I could explain the law and people would listen and say ‘okay’. It would be so restful.”
A return in many ways to her early neo-realist movies, Certain Women is anthology film based on short stories by Maile Moloy. It is centred around three loosely connected stories all focused upon women. The first sees a female lawyer (Laura Dern) struggle to communicate with her male client. The second centres on a career woman (Michelle Williams) trying to erect a dream-house for her family while struggling to recognise familial problems right in front of her. The final tale focuses on the tentative relationship that develops between a young, lonely student and farm-hand (Lily Gladstone) and her inexperienced teacher (Kristen Stewart).
A slow but haunting viewing, in the sense that it lingers in the mind for days after viewing – Certain Women is the culmination of Reichardt’s talents. Once again, the characters are very well-rounded. On one level, they feel like continuations of the strong females at the heart of Wendy & Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves – the playful title “Certain Women” could be interpreted as “confident women” or perhaps “some but not all women”. However, they’re more than just strong characters. It feels as if the viewer is watching a poetic moving portrait of actual people. As in real life, each person – whether it be Dern having to endure subtle misogyny, Williams’ struggle to balance a career and family or Gladstone’s obsession with Stewart’s teacher – is unique and notably human as they go about dealing with their dilemmas.
As Brian Tallerico noted in regards to Reichardt’s work, in Certain Women there is little closure. It feels as if the viewer is dropped into the middle of a character’s story and plucked back out at a later but not finite point. This may be unsatisfactory to some members of its audience. Yet for me, it’s almost as if the movie doesn’t end but instead exists to be pondered on, the viewing experience heightened upon reflection. Perhaps, its these deliberately open endings that have gained Reichardt the small but devoted following she has acquired thus far. Like the small river Michelle Williams’ jogs beside in a beautiful moment in Certain Women, the female director moves at her own distinct pace, forging her own path. Stephen Porzio