I recently finished a 13,000 word dissertation on American indie director Kelly Reichardt. It’s safe to say that I’m quite the fan of her work. Yet despite being a critically acclaimed regular on the festival circuit since ‘94 it still feels like she doesn’t get anywhere near enough attention. I’m sure there’s a gendered aspect to this-film discourse and auteur theory loves to valorise the supposed genius of (typically white cishet) male directors. It’s also true that her films are not always the most accessible or traditionally paced. They are meditative, anticlimactic stories of isolated figures moving through the American landscape. Yet look beneath the surface and these are films teeming with ideas and subtext. Queer repression, gendered hierarchies, economic degradation, turbulent political landscapes and the harmful innocence of white America are all touched on in ways subtle and everyday. Given my background with her work I figured I might be a good person to guide you through her filmography from where to start to the more underrated gems. Let’s get into it!
Where to Start
Certain Women (2016)
Reichardt’s latest (if you don’t count the unreleased First Cow) is arguably her most accessible and definitely my favourite. It features a triptych of stories following the lives and quiet struggles of a loosely connected group of women in small town America. These 4 characters, beautifully played by Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart are vastly different but equally dissatisfied. I adore the lonely atmosphere of this film. It’s subtly heartbreaking, melancholic stuff and is a very compelling exploration of women struggling with broken relationships, hostile workplaces and traditional gender roles.
Old Joy (2006)
Speaking of gender, Reichard’s second feature Old Joy is a gently fascinating consideration of masculinity. As with all of Reichardt’s work, what seems to be a fairly banal circumstance-a camping trip between two estranged friends, in fact conceals far more. Despite its slight running time, Old Joy still features characters who feel richly and sensitively drawn, portraying two very different men who have internalised stifling expressions of masculinity. There’s even some subtle nods to the American political landscape. If you need any further convincing, my dad- who doesn’t really watch films, really enjoyed this one.
River of Grass (1994)
River of Grass feels like a bit of an anomaly in Reichardt’s filmography. While thematically it shares DNA with her later work, stylistically it’s very different. The dry and dark humour, laconic voice over and frequent jump cuts are quite the departure from Certain Women or Old Joy. It’s clear to see Reichardt still finding her voice but in my opinion this results in a wonderfully experimental, scrappy film. To quote Saorise’s review:
“This film has as much raw, guerrilla, punk energy as Reservoir Dogs or Clerks, as much low budget ingenuity and attitude. I would even argue more maturity. Yet who’s the household names from the 90s new indie wave? Gee I wonder what is the difference between these filmmakers????“
Wendy and Lucy (2008)
Arguably Reichardt’s simplest and most heartbreaking film. Michelle Williams is incredible as an exhausted young drifter travelling North in the hope of finding work. Her only companion is her loyal dog Lucy. She is arrested for shoplifting and it all kind of gets worse from there. You will cry.
Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
Michelle Williams returns for Reichardt’s subversive take on the Western genre. This is a hauntingly atmospheric film as a caravan of white settlers travels through the desert, desperately searching for the means to survive. The film’s tight, claustrophobic framing evokes the repressive bonnets worn by the female characters. It works to immerse you in this time period and their isolated, marginalised experience. Beyond this centering of female characters, the film also importantly humanises an Indigenous man who acts as the group’s guide. This represents a deliberate and refreshing change from much of the Western genre which has dehumanised and vilified Indigeous characters.
The Dark Horse
Night Moves (2013)
I was surprised to recently see Night Moves in MUBI’s ‘perfect failures’ series alongside the hysterically awful Southland Tales. It’s certainly Reichardt’s most conventional and commercial film but it was still fairly well received and I found a lot to appreciate. It’s a tense, brooding story centering on a group of environmentalists as they attempt to blow up a hydroelectric dam. However, as with all of Reichardt’s work it doesn’t deal in bombast or high-drama but rather traces the implications of this act and the strain it places on the protagonist’s mental states and relationships. I personally prefer Reichardt’s warmer and more empathetic character studies but this is by no means a film to sleep on.