In Defense of Kelly Reichardt’s Directorial Touch

OK. One movie is about two lonely people who somehow find each other and convince themselves they are on the lamb after an incident with a gun, a pool and a black man. The next movie is about two old friends trying to reconnect by going on an overnight trip to the Cascades and Bagby Hot Springs. After that, we have an hour-and-a-half of a woman trying to find her dog. And then finally, a film set in 1845 on the Oregon Trail about a group of people in dire need of water. 

Do any of these sound interesting to you? Are those descriptions good enough to make you feel like carving out a few hours of your time to catch up with them? Because that’s it. There’s nothing more; nothing less. No real twists. No real turns. Just lonely people, a complicated friendship, a lost dog and some thirsty settlers. It would be great if I could tell you there was an unforeseen reveal. Even better if there were some great quotes to pull from each film. 

But I can’t. Because there aren’t.

So… does this interest you? Are any of those descriptions intriguing enough to make you adjust your Netflix queue or go searching on Amazon for used DVDS?

Well if it doesn’t and they aren’t, then let me be the first to tell you: You’re missing out. River of Grass (1994), Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Meek’s Cutoff (2010) are four of the most meditative, ambiguously suspenseful movies one could possibly come across in modern cinema. A first glance may lead you to believe there isn’t nearly enough there to hold your interest for much longer than a handful of minutes and a first bathroom break. Well, to hell with first glances.

Because Kelly Reichardt, the acclaimed Miami-born director of these features, has mastered the art of the long game. Excluding her shorts, these four full-length pictures, along with Night Moves (2013), which is currently making the rounds on the festival circuit, are the entirety of her filmography. Old Joy reportedly took about two weeks to make. There are no special effects. No 3D. There aren’t even any real substantial budgets. Just a storyteller, a few actors and some shoestring crews. 

And yet you’d be hard pressed to find a more mesmerizing director’s touch. Her narratives move at a pace that would make a snail blush. The word “resolution” appears to be absent from her vocabulary. Maybe most importantly, interpretation is key. The best element of Reichardt’s approach to filmmaking is her willingness to get out of the way, leaving all clarification in the hands of the viewer and all implication of settlement up for readied debate. 

She’s not just telling a story with her films; she’s allowing you to tell yourself a thing or two about yourself. It’s like a master’s course in personal reflection and somehow Reichardt knows all the answers to tests specific to who you were and who you’ve become.

Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy have something that I always am possessed with when I’m making a story, which is decay,” the great director Gus Van Sant once told Reichardt in a back-and-forth interview for Bomb magazine.

“In Old Joy, the decay of their friendship. And the decay is strongest in Wendy and Lucy. Falling into this abyss of hopelessness. I watched it in the morning in LA. Something was happening that was similar in my life; I was in the same situation as Wendy. I went outside, and all the other garbage cans had been picked up already but mine was still full. I was like, Well maybe I should leave it here. Obviously I had missed the pickup. I was out on the street, I had just finished watching the movie, and I was caught in the same situation that Wendy finds again and again. The world wasn’t helping me; it was sort of indifferent. And kind of mean, too. It was probably a result of just watching the movie. It brought about a part of myself that exists at all times, which is, Oh, is it going to happen like that? Where you get a parking ticket and that leads to lifetime imprisonment if you make the wrong move. And that comments on our society, how society is able or not to take care of its people. Wendy and Lucy for me was about our materialistic society. If you don’t have a few bucks, you’re going to have to live in the woods, because Wendy sort of is in the woods.” (“Kelly Reichardt by Gus Van Sant”, Fall, 1983)

Oh, but being in the woods rarely leads to this much clarity. Reichardt is a master of nothingness, knowing when to let shots extend an extra eight seconds and knowing how — and how not — to use close-ups. Our perceptions of her characters are dictated by their actions, expressions and moods; not by their words. She dares viewers to invest themselves in the psychology of what might be happening on screen, and rather than map it out cleanly and easily, she leaves all the work at the feet of those watching. 

Naturally, this means her movies are not for everybody. Multiple friends of mine have been both critical and dismissive of her approach, labeling it pretentious or boring or slow or pointless or impossible. “We have a film that ostentatiously refuses to end, instead settling on a sub-Malick nature-awe note of ambiguous something or other,” a blogger wrote of Meek’s Cutoff a few years ago, eventually noting, “if Reichardt’s narrative was a tease, her thematic choices were the equivalent of then walking away.” (“Rightwing Film Geek”, by Staff, 21 September 2010)

Those are fair criticisms, of course. The art of movie digestion is a monster in and of itself. What we each take from film is our own prerogative, be it escapism or introspection. For some, a slower pace can translate into blandness. For others, it can allow for a higher sense of analysis. There are people who argue that cinema isn’t supposed to make you work while there are fans who say the only valuable motion picture is the kind that launches your thoughts and questions into gear. Neither opinion is right. Neither opinion is wrong.

Though whichever side you land, there’s still one thing about Reichardt’s work that is impossible to argue: ability. Hers is a voice that is unique. Singular. Different. Fresh. Fearless. It’s one that polarizes viewers for all the reasons stated above. She’s willing to take chances, she’s willing to fail, she’s willing to drive enthusiasts away if they don’t like the vision she has for these stories. There’s nothing about her work that is beholden to popular opinion, nothing that adheres to acceptance. For those values alone, she should be commended. For those values alone, she should be celebrated. 

But there’s more to her success than that, more to her capabilities than mere resolve and originality. There’s a very specific eye that the director brings to the table, an outlook as fascinated by interpersonal communication as it is life’s inevitable consequences. None of what is portrayed in Reichardt’s movies occurs without ramification, obvious or not.

Many of those results are never seen on screen, of course, but they linger through a distinctly personal method the filmmaker has both examined and subsequently mastered. We’ve all experienced a friendship lost to undefinable reasons, for instance, yet it’s impossible to imagine a more accurate depiction of it all than what the director offers between Kurt and Mark in Old Joy. The film is no more an indie drama than it is a documentary on growing apart. 

Yet that’s what she’s best at: Realism. Those long, deep breaths she allows her scenes to breathe — those things are at the heart of real life. We often wish we could sound as assured and smart as actors do in movies, but Reichardt’s concentration on everything else that makes up an existence is unexpectedly enlightening if not utterly revelatory. She knows where to let words sit while conversation occurs in silence. It’s a gift of invigorating proportion, a gift few other contemporary directors have possessed. 

Night Moves is Reichardt’s first thriller, and it’s fascinating to watch her work in this mode,” The Village Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek wrote in September after catching a screening of her latest film.

“Like nearly all of her movies… Night Moves inches forward, rather than taking large leaps. But Reichardt is adept at orchestrating long stretches of tension. At times I thought I was bored, only to realize that I was actually feeling anxious and more than a little queasy. Night Moves may not have a particularly focused point of view; Reichardt, after all, is the kind of director who will lead us horses right up to the water, then leave us to decide to drink. But if the ending is ambiguous — almost no one here seems to know what it means — it’s also strangely chilling, an instance of pure evil sidling casually into everyday life. Night Moves is as stealthy as its title suggests; it’s a picture that thrives in the shadows.” (“Venice Update: Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, James Franco’s Child of God, and More”, 3 September 2013)

Shadows is a good word for Reichardt’s filmography, because she loves to play with them. Be it the shadows of personality, the shadows of moments, the shadows of space, the shadows of complication, or the shadows of a perceived reality, Reichardt knows how to craft a form of art impossible to shake for the minds and personalities that thrive off being shaken. She’s a master of the miniature, a maestro of The Moment.

Indeed, she may leave us at the water without forcing us to drink, but as we all know by now, sometimes it’s the journey through the desert that deserves our fullest attention anyway. Sometimes for better. Sometimes for worse.