Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

The Sublime Beauty of the Moment: Kelly Reichardt on “Certain Women”

Kelly Reichardt might be the most important independent American filmmaker working right now. Over six features, she has built a body of work that stands in sharp contrast to the prefab stories and festival-friendly satisfactions of much of what passes for independent cinema today. Reichardt’s movies are immersive, even gripping, and they often reflect (albeit sometimes obliquely) the social and political issues of their day: Her 2008 masterpiece, Wendy and Lucy, about a young, broke drifter on the margins of society attempting to make her way to a new life in Alaska, opened right in the heart of the financial crisis; her 2010 western, Meek’s Cutoff, about a group of settlers adrift in the desert, was read by some as an allegory of the Iraq War. 2013’s Night Moves took on the subject of ecoterrorism, but in the most understated yet humane way.

Reichardt’s films (which were just recently featured in a MoMA retrospective) are difficult to describe. To give any real sense of them, you have to explain how they sound, and how they move, and the little moments, glances, and gestures between characters that sometimes say more than any plot synopsis ever could. Last year’s Certain Women, which played the Sundance and New York Film Festivals and is now being released on home video by the Criterion Collection, is no different. Based on short stories by Maile Meloy, it tells the loosely connected tales of three Montana women — a lawyer, a wife, and a rancher — at what might be key turning points in their lives. But sometimes the significance of a moment isn’t revealed until after the fact; so often, we’re just watching these women be. Through her graceful but straightforward direction, Reichardt manages to convey the everyday nature of the events depicted, while also hinting at the mystery beneath them. On the occasion of the Criterion release of Certain Women, I spoke to her about how exactly she captures what she does.

In the past, you’ve taken individual short stories and turned them into features. With Certain Women, you took three short stories by Maile Meloy and created a semi-episodic film. What made you decide to do that?

Like everything, it’s just a process. I tried a few things that didn’t really work out, and then I came upon Maile’s stories and really liked them. But they were another thing I was sort of fooling around with; I knew that this might not work. Is there a reason that putting these together would somehow make it more than just expanding one story? Each collection seems like its own world. I started working off her two collections, and I tried different combinations of stories. This went on for like a year. Finally somehow there was a point when it started making sense to me and seemed like something worth pursuing. Part of it was settling on that middle story with Michelle Williams and James LeGros, which was not the most obvious story in her collection. But really for me, it made the whole thing work. And then I started finding some themes to be able to work from, and also changing the Rancher in the third story into a woman. It’s a long process, where you are in the weeds for a long time but then eventually things start to make sense.

You also do some interesting things, structurally. I feel like the conventional thing — to the extent that anything in this movie would ever be conventional — would have been to lead up to the Laura Dern episode, with the hostage standoff. But I love the fact that that episode comes at the beginning.

It did sort of have to start with that. But action-wise, it’s true. I would say that the emotional climax happens in the third story, and that makes the three stories come together.

[related_posts post_id_1=”410726″ /]

The film is filled with wonderful little details, like Kristen Stewart dabbing her face at the diner with the napkin still rolled up with the fork and knife. Do you search for moments like that, or are they the result of happy accidents?

You leave room for spontaneous things to happen. That particular thing was Kristen. That was purely her. The actors obviously bring a lot to each scene. One thing about shooting on location is the weather: The scene in the parking lot with Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone, the wind was so incredible that day — Kristen could hardly keep her skirt from flying up. And things like that end up playing a big part in choices that the actors make, and the mood of something. How loud people end up speaking because of the weather. Or dealing with animals that are not trained and are going to be doing their own thing, so you’re just responding to them. Or you’re driving, actually driving a car, and you have to be thinking about traffic. All these things keep actors in the moment, but also keep anything from being too especially planned out. That night at the diner, particularly, there was a big storm outside that you can sort of see through the window, and that ends up adding something to the feeling of the night. But that was Kristen doing that. She figured her character was in too much of a hurry to unwrap her spoon and fork [laughs].

Speaking of location, all your films have a tremendous sense of atmosphere and place. I’m curious how you go about achieving that. You shot some of your previous films in and around Portland, Oregon, where you’ve spent a lot of time, but do you feel like you need to really get to know a location before you shoot there? You work with very small budgets, so I don’t think it’s a case where you’re hanging out on set for months before you get to shoot.

Well, we were there months before we shot. It’s not like I can always have a crew or actors there, but I can personally be there beforehand. Generally speaking, I do spend a lot of time in the locations, and finding the locations. That’s the biggest, longest thing. You need to know a place before you’re making a film there. But it’s true that you’re not there with everything you need for that long; the actual shooting and time with actors is always pretty fast. But the crew people are anxious to begin and will just start working on these sorts of things way early because they want to. That’s nice.

On this film, some of the smaller locations were changing and falling out as we shot, which made things really difficult. But the big location, the ranch…once I found the ranch, that became the center of the universe and we built everything onto that. And I was able to spend time there. I didn’t know anything about ranching when I started, which is part of the fun thing, isn’t it? So, I started working with the rancher first, and eventually brought [cinematographer] Chris Blauvelt with me. Eventually, the horses were getting used to us, and then the assistant director started coming and doing the routine with us, and then the art department starts working there. We were just, like, moving our way into people’s lives and working at the ranch.

Kristen Stewart in “Certain Women”

Lily Gladstone’s character as the Rancher in that final episode feels like such a breath of fresh air in this world, where everyone is so constricted. In her own low-key way, she’s very bold, straightforward, and romantic and honest. But then she meets with heartbreak as a result of it. Do you think at the end that she’s disappeared into the brown-gray background of this world like everyone else, or…

Well, I can’t impose an ending on it. That’s for each viewer to suss out on their own. But she does realize the steady beauty of a chore, I’ll say that.

You often cast nonprofessionals in your films alongside more seasoned actors like Laura Dern or Jared Harris. Do you have a particular style of directing actors, or do you modify it based on who you’re working with?

It depends on who you’re working with. I try to just find my way around. This is a certain scale of film: It’s on locations, it’s often in the winter, and the weather’s kind of harsh. So, they’re coming into our world to a degree. Within that, I try to figure out how people want to work, and I try to facilitate whatever it is they require. There’s no magic pill for anything. Everything’s a process, and it always feels like a new start and new terrain with each film, and you’re just always sort of finding your way. Not that experience doesn’t help; certainly it does. Working with Michelle [Williams] is obviously easy because we see each other, we know each other. But then with other actors, you’re trying to suss out what it is they require, and you hope that they require something similar. And there’s usually not a lot of lead-up, so you’re just starting to get to know people when they start acting for you. Sometimes it starts with costume design, where people start getting fitted for their clothes. And maybe you start to know people when you’re sending them research or whatever. But mostly, you’re kind of thrown into the fire together. And you’re figuring it all out while you’re working.

Certain Women feels like a spiritual sequel to your western Meek’s Cutoff, in which you have a group of women wandering these vast stretches of land that once belonged to another people. Now here we are in the modern day, and an entire civilization has been built on top of that land. But we see the little remnants of what was here before, with the Indian ritual at the mall, the story about native sandstone, even Lily Gladstone’s character, who is Native American. The two films resonated in that way for me.

Well, that’s because they’re both about the West. I mean, it’s hard to write about the West and not be thinking about Native Americans on some level. I think that’s just the nature of any sort of western — however you want to define the western.

Sound seems like a critical part of your movies, but also an underrated part.

They all sort of start with sound. The soundscapes begin with scouting and really listening to what’s happening in the spaces. With Wendy and Lucy, that film came from a John Raymond short story called “Train Choir,” which had train sounds built into it, so that was sort of in my head as I started. The concept of that film was to just use the trains as score: In the spaces where you’d use music, you would use the sounds of this kind of commerce. And then in Meek’s Cutoff it was really about how to build quiet, which is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Building quiet is actually a lot harder than building a wall of sound. And it’s certainly harder to mix. We were in a place that was so quiet, and we had to get tracks of snakes and flies and just anything we could build sound with. We also had to get across the monotony and the repetitive nature of every day. And then animals brought a world of sound, and wind always brings a lot of sound.

Certain Women, we filmed in Livingston, Montana — it’s called “The Windiest Place in America.” It’s a crazy windy place, and everywhere you go — every alleyway or truck stop — the wind is making a hugely different sound. It was really hard to get clean. Wind is already hard to record, but at the truck stop, the wind going underneath the trucks has this really singsongy sound, and that was the starting idea of how to build a kind of distant ambience. And then there was the question of how to get across distance through sound for the Rancher character. Also, there’s a huge depot there, so there were going to be sounds of trains on the soundtrack whether I wanted them or not, so I needed to start planning for that ahead of the time. But then there are also these highway sounds. A lot of times, while you’re scouting, you start making notes of what you’re hearing, and then from that you start to build what the soundscape is going to be.

It wasn’t until I read Ella Taylor’s lovely essay in this Criterion booklet that I realized that in the very final scenes of the film, when we revisit each of these women, they’re all feeding someone or something.

Oh. Is that true? [Pause] Oh yeah, that is true.  Good eye, Ella! I hadn’t really thought of that. I just got the box today. And I’ve only seen the cover, and I haven’t opened the package yet.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Night Moves’ Eco-Terrorists Are Doomed From the Start

The most radical thing about this eco-terrorism drama is its quiet patience and formal vigor. While most studio pictures slap together their images with all the care of a grocery-store deli clerk assembling the ham and carrots on a cheap-o party platter, Kelly Reichardt, the director of Night Moves, favors the old-fashioned approach of poets and Jenga players: If you pull one shot out from one of her shrewdly constructed sequences, the whole thing would collapse. Moments may take longer to build here than in most films, but once Reichardt has suggested what they’re building to, she cuts away.

Often, she frames her stars — Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg, mostly — as if they had just happened through a wider world that Reichardt’s camera just happens to be documenting. The lakes, campsites, communes, and farm-supply stores where Night Moves‘ tense and moody story unfolds exist unperturbed by the concerns of the film’s protagonists, a subtle inversion of how kids-on-a-mission movies usually work. This crew is barely the hero of their own story, much less a film or a movement.

Eisenberg’s Josh, Fanning’s Dena, and Peter Sarsgaard’s Harmon have banded together to blow up an Oregon dam, because doing so might “send a message” about our priorities, our wastefulness, and the possibility of enacting change. They know that no single act of destruction would meaningfully set back the indignities humanity has wrought upon the Earth, but this stubbornly unromantic film shows them, on occasion, succumbing to the belief that they are about to save the planet. Then, since they’re all shifty characters who don’t quite trust each other, they swallow that belief back and concentrate on the job.

That patience of Reichardt’s, and her dedication to showing us exclusively the things that we must see, makes the scenes of preparation — boat parking, fertilizer buying — hypnotic and suspenseful and practical all at once. (The details, of camping, communal cooking, and leftist-enclave chitchat, feel bang-on.) Reichardt strips it free of Monkey Wrench Gang–style myth. Occasionally, she jolts us with surprise danger: a cut to a video camera observing a key scene; the sweeping brights of a car where they shouldn’t be; a freshly killed deer on the side of a country road, bathed in red brake lights. At other times, when we’re observing these zealots at their tasks, Reichardt teases out the moral questions: Do we hope for them to succeed? Do we think such destruction might accomplish something more? Could such an attentive and realistic depiction of this act, performed by A-list movie stars, inspire real-world copycats?

I’ll not say anything about whether these true believers succeed. The bombing attempt, brilliantly staged by Reichardt, occurs with quite a bit of movie left to go. The aftermath is a serious comedown, especially once the conundrums suggested in the buildup get aired explicitly; occasionally, as it rises to an inevitable tragedy, Night Moves flags, telling us things it had already stirred us to know. Still, the bleak final scenes are anticipated by every element of the opening ones. These romantics have not made the their too-big world a better place for all of us: They’ve made getting by in it even harder for themselves.

Fanning dominates the film in the first half, as a smart young woman given to prickly know-it-allism; she’s hilarious as her Dena improvises the magic words to con a skeptical store manager into letting her buy 500 pounds of (explosive) fertilizer. But brooding Eisenberg commands the final third, his hooded eyes and bony jaw now that of a man’s. He’s always played uneasiness well; now, he shows us the anger and petulance that distinguished his Mark Zuckerberg clenching into something truly threatening. The rightwing really shouldn’t worry about Night Moves: Nobody who sticks to the end is going to emulate this lot.

One more thought for anyone suspecting Jessie Eisenberg is some counter-Earth’s Michael Cera somehow loosed on our plane of reality to make life for our Cera unendurable: Eisenberg has a couple scenes with Alia “Maeby” Shawkat.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Venice Update: Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, James Franco’s Child of God, and More

In 1953, the Venice Film Festival jury didn’t award its top prize, the Golden Lion. Instead, it made the highly unorthodox decision to award the second-place prize, the Silver Lion, to six films, among them I Vitelloni and Ugetsu.

How did I know this? To celebrate the festival’s 70th edition, organizers have put together a series of short documentaries, culled from newsreel footage safeguarded in the Archivio Storico Istituto Luce Cinecittà, each spotlighting a specific year. One of these mini-documentaries is shown before every screening. The audience loves these little black-and-white aperitifs; they’ve become something to look forward to as we settle into our seats. In the mini-film for 1963, we see festival director Luigi Chiarini–peering from behind a pair of round sunglasses that are half international jet-setter, half Henry Miller–grousing that he doesn’t care if some of the films bored the audience; maybe those people will go away and make room for a better class of festival-goers, people who can appreciate the artistry of slow-moving pictures. He’s cranky and wonderful. In 1951, we learn, Winston Churchill attended the festival and even took to the beach for a dip. Today, the audience laughs–how could we not?–as this pasty, rotund Englishman emerged from the surf, a nearby aide quickly draping a large towel over his shimmering pate.

These little shorts put the audience in a collective good mood. We’re up for anything. Even if it’s Alexandros Avranas’s crisply made but unsavory little competition film, Miss Violence, in which a seemingly equable patriarch perpetuates a cycle of sexual abuse on his family. It’s the kind of movie that turns that charming image of Churchill with a towel on his head into a distant memory.

Then there’s James Franco’s Child of God, more uplifting than Miss Violence by at least a few whiskers. But that’s not saying much. Franco just can’t stop himself from working: He had a film at Cannes, too, an adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. (I didn’t see it, though it received reasonably favorable reviews.) This time he tackles Cormac McCarthy’s story of a lost soul named Lester Ballard (Scott Haze), a sort of cretin-orphan manchild who lives alone in a shack and doesn’t seem to realize that children–not even children of God–shouldn’t play with dead things.

Lester is a little like Denis Lavant’s sewer-dwelling troglodyte in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, only with about half the charisma. We’re supposed to feel sympathy for him, and maybe we would, if only Franco and his cinematographer, Christina Voros (who also shot As I Lay Dying), could figure out where to put the camera. Time and again I found myself looking at a wobbly shot of somebody’s slouched shoulder, or a not-very-interesting left ear, wondering what information, exactly, these visuals were intended to convey. Life is uncertain? Posture is important? Your guess is as good as mine.

I’m not the biggest fan of McCarthy’s twisted-sapling-in-the-forest prose, or his tales of simple folk with complicated problems–people who more often than not could just use a good shave–but I’ll concede that Franco is pretty much on McCarthy’s wavelength. Still, does he have to keep proving himself? Two or three times a year? No wonder he’s worn out the welcome mat with so many filmgoers. As McCarthy might put it, that mat is thin, thin, like a pancake of straw flattened by the damp warmth of a hounddog’s haunches, thick with the smell of rain-soaked fur and fermented urine, forgotten in the barn, long forgotten, though who would want to remember such a thing?

A far more intriguing picture is Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, in which Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard play eco-terrorists who don’t allow meager concerns like humanity get in the way of their activism. The trio plan their mission meticulously–they’ve decided to blow up an Oregon dam–and Reichardt lays out the details with cold precision. (She co-wrote the script with her frequent writing partner John Raymond.) We see Eisenberg, as an earnest guy who works at a co-op farm, and Fanning, as a rich girl employed by a touchy-feely faux-Asian spa, purchasing the boat that will help them make their statement to the world. Next, fertilizer must be procured, lots of it. Sarsgaard and Eisenberg send Fanning into the feed store to make the transaction; she’s interrogated, and stonewalled, by a cool-as-a-cuke James LeGros (who doesn’t show up in movies as often as he should). Watching Fanning talk her way through the negotiations is something to behold; she’s ruthless, like an Angel of Death who’s been educated at Bryn Mawr.

Night Moves is Reichardt’s first thriller, and it’s fascinating to watch her work in this mode. Like nearly all of her movies–especially the languid pioneer drama Meek’s CutoffNight 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.

Far more cheerful, in a “you could actually take your mom to it” kind of way, is Stephen Frears’s Philomena, in which Judi Dench plays an aged Irishwoman who gave birth out of wedlock 50 years ago. Her father consigned her to a Magdalene Laundries–type convent, where the baby was taken away from her and sold by the nuns to American parents. Philomena, who has clung to Catholicism all her life despite the raw deal it gave her, finally decides to take action to find her son; Steve Coogan plays the out-of-work political journalist who signs on to help her.

Philomena is based on a true story (it was adapted, by Coogan and Jeff Pope, from Martin Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee), and parts of it are heartrending. But Frears modulates the emotional pitch carefully: The picture is never too saccharine or too bitter. And Dench and Coogan are marvelous together. The two grate against each other at first, romantic-comedy-style, before settling into a bumptious arm-in-arm rapport. Coogan’s character, mortified when he learns some details about how the young Philomena was treated by the sisters, utters the immortal words, “Fucking Catholics!” The audience, here in this extremely Catholic country, laughed and clapped. There are many significant differences between the Irish and the Italians, but evil nuns? They’re the universal language.

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Museums & Galleries VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

YOUNG AMERICANS

The Whitney Biennial, the Whitney Museum’s massive survey of contemporary American art, is one of the most anticipated events in the art world. This year, the Biennial consists of 51 artists whose works include sculpture, painting, installations, and photography as well as dance, theater, music, and film. On the roster are choreographers Michael Clark and Sarah Michelson (her site-specific work runs today through March 11), installation artists Michael E. Smith and Nick Mauss (who is creating a velvet chamber), and filmmakers Vincent Gallo and Kelly Reichardt (screening her Oregon trilogy). Biennial events to watch for later in the spring include Early Plays director Richard Maxwell conducting open rehearsals for a new work from April 25 to 29 and a fashion show by K8 Hardy of the queer feminist art collective LTTR on May 20.

Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: March 1. Continues through May 27, 2012

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Meek’s Cutoff: Western Disunion

Tenacious indie Kelly Reichardt has specialized in quirky, minimalist quasi–road movies in which loners come unmoored in some great American space. Meek’s Cutoff, shown at the last New York Film Festival, is that and more—one great leap into the 19th-century unknown. The members of a small wagon train crossing the Oregon Trail in 1845 follow their bombastic, wrongheaded guide into the desert, where, as one of the party scratches on a rock in the movie’s first scene, they are “lost.”

Directed from Jon Raymond’s fact-based script, this suggestively allegorical, discreetly trippy Western recalls Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and even Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God in its evocation of frontier surrealism and manifest-destiny madness; the Reichardt approach is, however, more stringent and pointed in its weirdness. Her emphasis is on process, monotony, and mind-bending isolation. Chris Blauvelt’s camera lingers on the three settler women (Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, and Zoe Kazan), alt-Bedouin in their protective gingham dresses and heavy bonnets, searching for firewood and then dutifully trudging on (and on) behind their husbands’ covered wagons. Water runs low, the horses tire, and the pioneers dump their possessions to lighten the load. A young boy stumbles on a precious nugget—but, as someone says, you can’t drink gold.

Meek’s Cutoff has a few beautifully understated images of cooperation as the settlers drag their wagons across the scrub brush, but the movie’s major concern is the problem of bad leadership. Having split off from a larger wagon train, the party elected to follow Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), an extravagantly hirsute, self-regardingly loquacious guide who, in his most obvious misjudgment, brings them not to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains but the shores of a great saline lake. Is he “ignorant or just plain evil?” the Williams character asks her husband (Will Patton). “We can’t know. . . . We made our decision,” he tells her. “I don’t blame him for not knowing—I blame him for saying he did,” she replies, establishing herself as the party’s moral compass.

History has taken a turn; events come to a head when the settlers stumble upon and are compelled to take captive an unarmed Indian scout. They regard this irredeemable Other (impassively played by Crow stunt artist Rod Rondeaux) with suspicion bordering on panic, as a sort of intelligent animal. At the same time, he’s the material projection of the unforgiving, unknowable wilderness in which they find themselves. The Indian has not even Pidgin English, although he converses with the moon and is adept at reading the landscape for signs. Who will lead them out of the desert—the boastful blowhard Meek or this enigmatic native? Votes are taken, guns appear. Thanks in part to Jeff Grace’s spare, spacey score, Meek’s Cutoff has a tranced-out quality, but the political implications, regarding trust given and abused, are hard to miss.

“We all just playing our parts now,” Meek declares just before the movie ends. “This was written long before we got here.” Cinematic as it is, Meek’s Cutoff has an uncanny theatricality. The scenes alternating between windswept emptiness and the dark void could be played on a barren stage. For all its detailed authenticity, this minimalist Wagon Train is less naturalistic than existential. Typically shown in long shot, these wanderers are not so much dwarfed by the landscape in which they find themselves as surrounded by its silence and imprisoned in its nothingness.

To read an interview with Kelly Reichardt, go to villagevoice.com

jhoberman@villagevoice.com

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Going the Distance With Meek’s Cutoff Director Kelly Reichardt

Opening Friday, Meek’s Cutoff, like all of director Kelly Reichardt’s previous features (River of Grass, Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy), is essentially a road movie about both the unequal distribution of power and resources and the frustrations of the disenfranchised. Tracking three hungry and thirsty families on the long wagon journey from Missouri to Oregon in the mid-19th century who are lost because of the poor navigational skills of their wild-man hired guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), the film is based on extensive research by Reichardt and screenwriter Jon Raymond. They adapted many details from the journals of women who trekked with the real-life Meek, who disastrously led a splinter group off the Oregon Trail.

“Meek was perceived in different ways by different people, but definitely was thought of as someone who didn’t know what he was doing by pretty much everyone,” Reichardt says, sharing a couch in a Williamsburg production office with her dog, Lucy, co-star and co-namesake of her last feature. Meek’s own 14-page autobiography, she explains, wasn’t much help: “Ten pages is this long-winded joke, and then he’s just like, ‘I led the first wagon train through Oregon territory. Completely successful.’ Probably just like George W. Bush’s new book: ‘Everything went great. Not to worry.’”

Meek’s Cutoff is set in 1845, the same year that Margaret Fuller published her foundational feminist text Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Fuller, a dedicated transcendentalist who advocated female self-reliance and equality between spouses, wrote that the highest form of marriage constituted a “pilgrimage towards a common shrine.”

Fuller’s notions are manifest in Meek’s female lead, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), the tough and determined wife of the party’s captain, Soloman. Extraordinarily self-sufficient compared with the other women on the journey (played by Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan), Emily enjoys enough parity with her husband that he gives her recaps of the tense debates among the men. And she’s the only member of the party bold enough to articulate everyone’s fear concerning Meek: “Is he ignorant? Or is he just plain evil?”

Reichardt’s film has been called a revisionist Western due to its emphasis on women and the empathy shown for an Indian (Rod Rondeaux) rather than the cowboy Meek. But the director’s interest in dismantling the conventions of the genre goes further than simply swapping one perspective for another.

“The Western as we’ve come to know it is so much about these exploding, heightened moments. And then you read these women’s journals and you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s like a trance!’ [They’re] really a list of chores,” Reichardt explains. “‘Built the fire, popped the tent, made the bread, walked eight miles.’ It’s the opposite of heightened moments. It’s about monotony and labor, one day melting into the next.” To underscore the settlers’ disassociation from time and space, Reichardt uses long, slow dissolves as they endlessly trudge across terrain that all looks the same.

The women’s perception of the landscape is constrained by their bonnets, which are large enough to cover their ears and block out peripheral vision. Reichardt shot the film in the square, 1.33:1 aspect ratio to replicate this limited perspective and to heighten the sense of claustrophobic immediacy. “Jon would put in the script, ‘And then they’re surprised by…’ And I’m like, ‘Jon, what surprise? Standing in the desert, I can see for 40 miles. I can be shocked by nothing.’ So how do you create this space where you could still come upon something [unexpected]? The square helped me with that—you wouldn’t see tomorrow or yesterday in the shot.”

Meek’s is Reichardt’s largest-scale project to date­. “Compared to the last movie that we made,” says Williams, referring to 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, in which she also starred, “we were rolling in cash! But there was so much more for it to cover.” The low-budget shoot was almost as grueling and resource-challenged as the journey it depicted. “The desert is the great equalizer,” Reichardt notes wryly. Cast and crew all stayed at the Horseshoe Motel in Burns, Oregon, a two-hour drive on dusty, unpaved roads from the film’s desolate locations. “If you’re Bruce Greenwood, you’re staying in the same kind of room as the driver who’s working on a film for the first time,” the director adds.

Even though the crew members struggled to make do with very little, they were still injecting money into an even more dire economy in the business- and industry-deficient Burns—population, 3,020. “I thought, What will it be like going to this little Republican town?” Reichardt recalls. Yet instead of small-town small-mindedness, the production was warmly greeted. “There was really high unemployment, and we were able to hire locals, like ranchers and auto-repair men.”

The interrelated struggles of the movie’s characters, its cast and crew, and the locals who supported the production—most of whom claimed to be descendants of the members of the real Meek party—call to mind Jacques Rivette’s observation that every film is a documentary of its own making. Essentially, the people of Burns were helping Reichardt’s crew make a feature about their own past that also, politically and economically, reflects the struggles of the present, not only in their town but also in the realm of micro-budgeted film.

But as much as the limitations of the shoot may have contributed a sense of realism to the finished product, “it doesn’t need to be quite as hard,” Reichardt says. “I don’t want to make another film as stretched as we were.”

The title Meek’s Cutoff becomes almost literal in its last scene, when the arrogant guide’s power is apparently curtailed, the dominance of the American cowboy upended. The moment offers such a bold punctuation to the film’s foundational ideas that it’s surprising to hear that it came together at the last minute, when the production ran out of money. “I would like it so that, if the sun’s going to set, you’re not going home without the ending of your movie,” Reichardt says. “[But that’s] basically what happened to us: The sun went down, everyone was leaving the next day, and we couldn’t afford the animals another day. So a new ending had to be constructed. Michelle, Rod, and I went back with a five-person crew and shot it.”

The compromises necessitated by financial constraints have been a theme in both Reichardt’s films and her own career trajectory. She recalls the frustrations that followed her breakout at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, where River of Grass premiered alongside Kevin Smith’s Clerks and David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey—films that turned those two directors into hot commodities. But Reichardt says “the door wasn’t open” to her in the same way. More than a decade passed between River of Grass and Old Joy (2006), during which time she taught and made experimental shorts. She still makes her living teaching at Bard College.

“It feels like the kind of thing I’m doing—shooting film, projecting in theaters—is a sinking ship, for sure,” the maverick filmmaker says. But she finds some consolation when she returns to the idea of duress as a leveler: “However it’s going to change, maybe the bright side of that is that it’ll be an equalizer. It’ll bring in more voices, more variety.”

Categories
VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Old Joy

Dir. Kelly Reichardt (2006).
An aging Oregon hippie, one step from sleeping on the pavement, persuades his domesticated buddy to come out and play. Tender and ironic, Reichardt’s diminished Easy Rider is an adventure out of time that, however open-ended, has a crushing finality.

Sun., April 3, 3 p.m., 2011

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

River of Grass

Dir. Kelly Reichardt (1994).
Kelly Reichardt’s first feature, shot for no money on the edge of the Everglades demonstrates her eye for landscape, knack for throwaway gags, and lackadaisical absurdist humor. It’s a slacker Bonnie and Clyde that gives new meaning to the phrase “nothing doing.”

Sat., April 2, 3 p.m., 2011

Categories
VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Wendy and Lucy

Dir. Kelly Reichardt (2008).
A sad pixie (Michelle Williams) skating on thin ice, stumbles and slides into the lower depths. Reichardt’s spare, actor-driven, socially aware, and open-ended third feature has obvious affinities to Italian neorealism but a most melancholy American saga.

Sat., April 2, 5:30 p.m.; Sun., April 3, 5 p.m., 2011

Categories
VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Old Joy

Dir. Kelly Reichardt (2006).
An aging Oregon hippie, one step from sleeping on the pavement, persuades his domesticated buddy to come out and play. Tender and ironic, Reichardt’s diminished Easy Rider is an adventure out of time that, however open-ended, has a crushing finality.

Sun., April 3, 3 p.m., 2011