Kelly Reichardt: A Filmmaker of This Time

There are still some numpties in the world who presume that the reason why so few women direct films is because they are not that good at it. Doesn’t really justify a response but…holding back the urge to slap these people in the face, one may instead point towards the remarkable filmography of Kelly Reichardt. Indeed, Reichardt is only one example of many excellent female directors working in the film industry today – New Zealand’s Jane Campion, USA’s Kathryn Bigelow, India’s Mira Nair and France’s Claire Denis have been making ground-breaking films for decades, while the likes of Patty Jenkins, Sofia Coppola and Lynne Ramsay are all following closely in their footsteps. There are many others too. But the matter of gender imbalance in the movie-making business is still very obvious and one that appears a long way away from being fixed. There are many factors behind this imbalance but that is a whole other blog to write. For now, I just want to offer my appraisal for Kelly Reichardt and her beautiful films.

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Reichardt has, over the past 12 years or so, become a revered film auteur. This is mainly thanks to her prominent status on the film festival circuit around the world. Mainstream cinema still remains aloof to her movies. But what does that matter? That’s all about money. And her films are more about connectedness rather than making profits. She has even stated that she’s never disappointed if her films do not make money. She deliberately works on low budgets and makes the most of her actors and her settings. Her films are deep, slow and can take a bit of work to fully comprehend. The popcorn-munching, thrill-seeking, shallow-minded mainstream public would doubtlessly struggle to get through 5 minutes. But nevertheless, her films have found a welcoming home with enough people to keep her in a job and we can only be thankful for that. Reichardt has a lot of important things to say about the human race, not just from a female perspective, but from a humane, loving perspective. She is, what I would call, a filmmaker of the times we currently live in.

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Reichardt grew up in Florida and studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In 1994, she made her first feature film, River of Grass, at the age of 30. This earned her some early kudos and plenty of prize nominations– it was selected at Sundance, Berlin and nominated at the Independent Spirit Awards. It would seem that she was on her way to a successful career in the industry…you know, just like her male contemporaries. But this was around the same time that Harvey Weinstein and his ugly ilk were generally in control of the direction that Hollywood movies were taking. It proved massively difficult for Reichardt to get any funding and she was not to direct another feature film for 12 years. She did direct a few short films – Ode (1999), Then a Year (2001) and Travis (2004) – but no acclaim was forthcoming. Her obvious passion for being behind the camera kept her tipping away in those intervening years and when she was introduced to the Portland-based writer Jonathan Raymond by fellow director and friend, Todd Haynes, a fruitful collaboration simmered to the surface. Reichardt adapted a short story of Raymond’s for her comeback feature in 2006, Old Joy, which Haynes produced, and they would go on to team together for her next three films, Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Night Moves (2013). Her most recent film, Certain Women (2016) was an adaptation of short stories by Maile Meloy.

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I have always been mesmerised by Reichardt’s films. They have an uncanny ability to entrance you and leave you quietly to your own thoughts upon ending. There is rarely an obvious plot structure and the scenes are mostly devoid of action (with the exception of Night Moves). The narratives are often centralised around a main character or set of characters. Many commentators have drawn parallels to the Italian neorealist films of De Sica and Rossellini. I would agree to a point here. There are clear nods towards the Italian masters, but what Reichardt creates is entirely her own. I would go as far to say that many American independent films from the past 10 years have tried to replicate the settings, moods and atmospheres from Reichardt films, such has the power of her own influence become (critics have coined her films ‘neo-neo realism’). The jaded, realist style she has procured resonates, I imagine, with a lot of disillusioned Americans, but it also has a connection around the world. It is no surprise to discover that she resented the Bush Administration years and the Iraq War in the early 2000s. I can only imagine how she feels now about Trump. But her films never deliver a direct anti-establishment or anti-war message ala John Pilger or Michael Moore. Instead, her camera connects deeply with a protagonist who has found, or is finding, that the decisions of those in authority can have a profound effect on their mental state. And that never needs to be spelled out. Reichardt just offers characters from this world and from a certain moment in this world.

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Old Joy focuses on two male friends who reacquaint for a weekend away camping in the stunningly beautiful mountains of Portland, Oregon. One is a free-styling hippie and the other is a married man and soon-to-be father living in the suburbs. There is no real trajectory to the film. We are just observing as these two old mates drive out to the hills, drink beer, smoke weed, shoot pellet guns, speak philosophical riddles and take a naked dip in some hot springs. The proceedings are glacially paced and the backstories of the characters are elusive. We the viewer just about get enough to understand that there is a tension there. What it actually is or how it came to be is never revealed. We are just consumed into the landscape that surrounds the characters – the rivers, the mountains, the trees. This may sound mundane and boring, but it is impressively effective. I felt moved with compassion and sorrow for the two men because even without prompts and a packaged backstory, I was able to feel their humanity. These people are everywhere. They are you and me.

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After the success of Old Joy, Reichardt had finally established enough status and wealth to attract a genuine star in her next film. This was Michelle Williams, and not only did she feature in Wendy and Lucy, but in Meek’s Cutoff and Certain Women as well. Williams is an outstanding actor (she has come a long way since Dawson’s Creek) and her collaborations with Reichardt stands out amongst her best work. It seems that both women have an established connection regarding Reichardt’s worldview and Williams wilfully embodies that enigmatic pondering that so exemplifies Reichardt’s characterisations. Wendy and Lucy tells the quiet and soulful (and sometimes soul-crushing) journey of a troubled young woman called Wendy and her dog as they try to reach Alaska. As usual with Reichardt, we are not provided with any prologue to Wendy’s life or an explanation as to how she ended up bordering on being destitute. She is where she is now, and the viewer is asked to take this often perilous journey with her. Williams is extraordinary as the vulnerable vagrant who appears to have nothing in her life save for her adorable dog and just about enough cash to survive. When both of these disappear, her situation greatly deteriorates. The sad and dire nature of Wendy’s journey is heart-rending but her sustained attempts to make it through are inspirational. It is her empathy and selflessness that makes her stand-out as an unlikely heroine for this day and age.

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Reichardt followed that film with a Western, Meek’s Cutoff, in 2010. This was loosely based on a true story from 1845 about three pioneering couples bound for the frontier and led across the Oregon Trail by the real-life fur trapper Stephen Meek. Here, Reichardt deals with the mythology of the West and the legend-making in American History, and she does so in a veracious and constructive (or perhaps, de-constructive) way. There are no clichés, no clown characters and no John Waynes or Randolph Scotts, but the landscape of the American Mid-West is engulfing as ever. The women, played by Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan and the stand-out Williams, are living, breathing examples of utterly believable female characters from the time – yes, even in 2019, this is remarkable! Reichardt also involves a Native American man (played brilliantly by Rod Rondeaux) as a crucial element to the story’s progression – can anyone point to another American movie that has treated a Native American with such authenticity? The man is perceived to be a threat and is incarcerated by the cruel and untrusting Meek, but an extraordinary power-shift occurs when William’s character threatens Meek at gunpoint. With everyone desperate for water, she unbinds the non-English speaking man and follows his lead toward salvation. It is one of the great Westerns, probably the best of this century so far. Not unlike The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford from a few years earlier, there is a genuine attempt at historical authenticity. But unlike that film, it is not overbearingly pretentious and arty…and it doesn’t have Brad Pitt looking all moody!

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Relevance is important to Reichardt’s work. Sometimes she is perhaps ahead of the zeitgeist by a few years. In 2013, she again teamed up with Raymond to make Night Moves (not to be confused with Arthur Penn’s 1975 neo-noir classic of the same name). Here is a more dramatically involved film about radical environmentalists – or as the right likes to refer to them: ‘eco-terrorists’. Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning give unnerving performances as naïve young activists who go to extreme measures to make a point about human interference on the environment by bombing a hydroelectric dam. The political undertones of this film is very evident, but that is not to say that what Reichardt is attempting to do is overtly political. Like with all of her films, Reichardt ensures that the characters take centre-stage, and not a particular message. It is the actions of Eisenberg and Fanning’s characters that fundamentally drive the story. At the outset, they believe they are blowing up the dam for the good of the planet. But as events spiral, their insecurities and vulnerabilities rise to the surface, and in the end, both of them unravel towards tragedy. However, under Reichardt’s direction, this unravelling is slow and never obvious. She is very careful not to present the two activists as wrong-doers or right-doers. They are human beings caught in a world full of divisive political rhetoric.

 

And this brings me finally to Reichardt’s recent film, Certain Women. This is a fantastic and compelling character study of four women living in modern-day Montana. The characters are all believable, all connectable and all caught up in the world they live in. The women are played with equal reverence by veteran Laura Dern, the ever-awesome Michelle Williams, impressive newcomer Lily Gladstone and ‘you-may-know-her’ Kristen Stewart. The film is subtly intertwined with three tales involving (1) a jaded small town lawyer (Dern), (2) a young wife (Williams) who wants to build a home with her family, and (3) a lonely stable-hand (Gladstone) who happens by a class on school law and attempts to befriend the teacher (Stewart). Things happen in Certain Women and some of these things are exciting and unexpected e.g. the hostage-taking sequence or the ‘asleep  at the wheel’ moment. But for the most part, this is trademark Reichardt. It is slow, meandering and contemplative. This is not a Pulp Fiction-style interweaving of vignettes. It is three separate films in one film. But the women are connected in their isolation and their struggles in the world. Dern’s lawyer is at once strong and confident, but she often implies a sense of resignation to the way she is treated by men. Williams’ character is focused and assured, but she frets at the way her husband and their teenage daughter bond together. Gladstone plays an uncomplicated woman who meticulously cares for her horses, but when she meets and pursues a more accomplished woman (Stewart), her inexperience leads her in complicated directions. The studies of each of these women are equally fascinating. The way in which Reichardt sets these stories – in the beautiful, frosty Mid-West – is massively effectual. The sounds are delicately balanced, and the stories are thoroughly absorbing. I would say that it is Reichardt’s most accomplished work yet. But then again, she has never disappointed with any of her previous films, and I can only look forward to her next one with gleeful anticipation.

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