Before the entire world shut down, there was an extremely good Kelly Reichardt movie (“First Cow“) halfway into theaters. Now it’s shelved indefinitely, with promises from distributor A24 that it will see theaters again, but our career-spanning look at the American independent stalwart continues.
Known for their lived-in detail, complex female leads and incisive social commentary about class, struggle and identity, Reichardt titles like “Wendy and Lucy” (2008), “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010) and “Night Moves” (2013) examine the age-old cracks in the Pacific Northwest’s rebellious mythology.
Often her characters are faced with the difficult choices after bouts of naïveté, trust in “the system” or, frankly, men. That naïveté can cover a whole manner of sins, but mostly the idea that traveling to or through the Pacific Northwest will unlock some version of the American dream. After a film festival breakout in “River of Grass” (1994) and some short films, Reichardt’s feature filmmaking career took a 10-year hiatus as she struggled for funding and acceptance in a male-dominated indie marketplace. Then, in 2006, “Old Joy,” a meditative portrait of two friends on a camping trip, affirmed the writer/director’s affinity for her new digs (Oregon) and her acumen for character studies.
In 2008, where our podcast picks up with full reviews, “Wendy and Lucy” chronicles a destitute young woman (Michelle Williams) and her dog attempting to drive to Alaska from the Midwest, but running up against a broken-down car, an empty bag of dog food, and the isolation of North Portland. Williams delivers a heartbreaking performance as a woman trying to reconcile her fantasies of what life could be and the reality of life on America’s margins.
Then, in 2010, Williams returns for the revisionist Western, “Meek’s Cutoff.” We’re still in Oregon, of course, but before the West was tamed and filled with luxury condos, weed dispensaries, and artisanal coffee shops. A band of pioneers (including Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, and Will Patton) and their requisite wagons and oxen trudges excruciatingly forward, as the patriarchy embodied by Bruce Greenwood’s Stephen Meek assures them that salvation is just over the next hill. When they encounter a Native American man (Rod Rondeaux) who may know where water is, all bets are off on how to extract that information and keep the group alive.
Finally, Reichardt tackles environmental activism/terrorism in 2013’s “Night Moves.” Jesse Eisenberg, Peter Sarsgaard, and Dakota Fanning star as young outsiders plotting a violent stand against the climate crisis. In lieu of voting for Bernie or making a documentary, they decide the best course is to blow up a damn impeding the local salmon population. As is wont to happen in Reichardt’s world, things don’t go according to plan, and these naive eco-terrorists must deal with the breakdown of their consciences.
Finally, we briefly discuss “First Cow” a bit for those lucky few who’ve seen it, but that’s mostly an Oregon parable friendship, the cruel realities of capitalism and stealing milk to survive another day.
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