The work of Kelly Reichardt is considered immortal here at The Lost Highway Hotel. She is, without a doubt, one of the premiere filmmakers working in the United States at the moment. Her work is parred down, particular and poetic in its affinity to the Midwest, its people and history. Her oeuvre is a landlocked island of enquiry. Attune yourself to her tempo and you’ll be smitten forever.
This week sees the belated release of her latest opus, First Cow, initially reviewed last year during the first lockdown before it was pulled from international distribution. That initial review can be viewed here. To mark the occasion, I’ve decided instead to provide an overview of all seven films to date. If you can find the Soda Pictures blu-ray set of 4 of these I would encourage you to do so.
Please note that there are no bad apples in this bunch, and so ranking can – as is often the case in such subjective things – be taken with a pinch of salt. Anyway, in loose order of preference, here we go…
7. River of Grass (1994)
An outlier in Reichardt’s career, separated from the remainder of her work by 12 years, River of Grass is the Floridian indie debut that established her as a name to watch… even if the wait would turn out to be a long one. Rough around the edges and reminiscent of the Coen Brothers striking opening salvo Blood Simple, the film subverts the myth of the outlaw as idolised across American culture, focusing on a pair of wannabe rebels who falsely assume they’ve killed a detective. Lisa Donaldson is Reichardt’s malcontent lead, wishing her way into a life of drama and exoticism, while her bad-boy-in-waiting is played by none other than American indie mainstay Larry Fessenden.
6. First Cow (2019)
Placing First Cow next isn’t in any way a slight against it. Rather it just goes to show the strength of the remainder of Reichardt’s films, and I am fully open to moving these arbitrary placings around once I’ve grown to know the film a little more, and – hopefully – once I’ve had the privilege of seeing it on the big screen. First Cow takes us back to pioneer times. Appearing in the aftermath of Certain Women, it sees Reichardt rekindling her compassion and interest in male friendships, while simultaneously hitting still-relevant pressure points on economic and racial biases. It’s also a great foodie movie, so make sure you’ve got something delicious lined up for just after.
5. Old Joy (2006)
Her first collaboration with Jon Raymond – a professional partnership that has been fruitful and continues to this day – Old Joy is a modestly sized joy, but not an insignificant one. Will Oldham (aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’) and Daniel London are estranged pals reunited for a weekend trip to some remote hot springs. Simplicity itself, but Reichardt’s understated observations on the way relationships change and the micro-adjustments that occur with the passing of years are really beautiful. Speaking of beautiful, alt-rock legends Yo La Tengo provide the dreamy, appropriately introverted score.
4. Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
If you’d asked me to compile this list a few years ago, Meek’s would’ve appeared much lower, but time has been quite kind to Reichardt’s most overt western, in spite of (maybe even because of) its daringly elliptical ending… a result of location problems as opposed to anything more highfalutin; she simply didn’t get to finish. Reichardt presents us a group of settlers travelling in wagons, lost on their way to a destination that their blowhard leader Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is too proud to admit is out of his grasp. The aspect ratio – that wonderful old Academy 1:33 – aligns itself psychologically with the viewpoint of the women in the company, played perfectly by Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson, mirroring the cropped vantage from their bonnets. In turn, Meek’s Cutoff becomes a decidedly feminist deconstruction of many Western tropes, not to mention a hard blow to male insecurity.
3. Night Moves (2013)
Perhaps because it was my entry point into the world of Kelly Reichardt, but I’ve remained a staunch defender of what seems to be regarded as a lesser film in her particular canon. Indeed, from here the distance separating the films is wafer thin. Jesse Eisenberg – often selected for his motormouth qualities – is mercifully and fascinatingly tight-lipped as Josh, a wannabe eco-warrior who teams up with Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) to blow up a hydro-electric dam. Night Moves is a masterclass in economical suspense building. This defiantly quiet and tightly wound thriller has the power to leave you breathless over something as innocuous as a trip to a garden centre, while the second half is a wrought psychological unravelling that leaves Josh cornered by the society he’s rejected.
2. Wendy and Lucy (2008)
Ready to have your heart broken? Michelle Williams’ first colab with Reichardt was this much-celebrated micro-tale of one woman’s attempt to up sticks and rebuild her life, but without the budget that such endeavours necessitate. Wendy (Williams) is en route to Alaska when her car breaks down and she loses her beloved companion Lucy (Reichardt’s own dog). Suddenly run aground in a nondescript Mid Western town, Wendy’s financial dire straits significantly limit her options. In the process – and with pitch-perfect tenderness – Reichardt lays bare the frailties of the American Dream, and the rigged game of our capitalist society. An instant indie classic and with very, very good reason. Wally Dalton is great, too, as a friendly security guard.
1. Certain Women (2016)
Available in the UK in a beautifully designed Criterion Collection edition (nudge), Certain Women isn’t Reichardt’s most immediate film (does she have one of those?), but its my firm favourite. Based loosely on a selection of short stories by Maile Meloy, this anthology piece places a number of everyday women under the spotlight as they content with life’s little difficulties. For beleaguered lawyer Laura (Laura Dern), its a client’s disbelief that she feels wouldn’t even occur if she were a man. For ambitious wife and mother Gina (Michelle Williams) its obtaining an amount of stone for her planned self-build. For an unnamed rancher (Lily Gladstone), its the tentative moves in making a connection with displaced supply teacher Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart). This last is the film’s out-and-out gem, but it is in combination that these chapters obtain their poetry and power. The decision to have the poster rendered in pencil is perfect; an epitome of the deft, delicate work housed within.
Certain Women alone would mark its creator out as one of the finest in her generation. That it is accompanied by all these other films secures Reichardt’s place as an all-time talent to cherish.