Vignettes are nothing new in independent cinema. One of America’s unsung treasures, Kelly Reichardt, recently made her own contribution to the subgenre with Certain Women, a film composed of three intersecting shorts based on stories by Maile Meloy. The most interesting thing about this – apart from the film’s immense quality – is how resistant Reichardt has previously been to anything as obviously rigorous as a vignette structure. Her work is known for its quiet, meandering pace, and a descriptive, rather than plot-driven, approach to storytelling.
Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) are the most straightforward examples of Reichardtian style, given their relative similarity. The two are, in essence, distinctly unglamorous road movies. Old Joy opens with Mark (Daniel London) getting a call from his best buddy Kurt (Will Oldham, aka cult musician Bonnie “Prince” Billy) inviting him on a brief road trip across the state. The two thirtysomethings hit the road, traveling from Portland to the Cascades, seeking the famous Bagby Hot Springs. They camp overnight; they get a little lost in the morning; they find the Springs, and stay there for a few hours; they drive home. There is something strangely comedic about the structure, though the film doesn’t often invite you to laugh. The “road” is a short one, and a parabolic one besides. Mark leaves his pregnant wife at home for a night, then returns the next day. Kurt leaves his unfulfilling hippie lifestyle for a night, then returns the next day. So much for “Getcha motor runnin’… ”
Wendy and Lucy is a little more elliptical, though it retains that sense of listlessness. Like Old Joy, there is no hugging and learning; in fact, though the events of the plot are highly significant for their protagonist, they are presented with so little obvious drama that it feels, even by the end, like little has happened. A young woman, Wendy (Michelle Williams), stops overnight in a small Oregonian town on her way to Alaska. In the morning her car won’t start, and events transpire to separate her from her dog Lucy – prompting a search. So it is that Wendy’s larger road trip is boiled down to her extended stopover in nowheresville. The film begins with her arrival and ends with her leaving; as with most road movies, this is a film of personal discovery, though in this case such experiences are conducted off-road.
In both these films, the protagonists’ journeys are informed by some origin we aren’t entirely privy to. We understand that Mark and Kurt have been good friends since school, but have drifted apart into different lifestyles. We understand that Wendy has come from Indiana with her dog, has a sister and brother-in-law back home whom she briefly phones, and is heading towards Alaska, in pursuit of better prospects, with a mysterious collection of cash. We know also that she technically doesn’t have an address, a cell phone, or even a bank account. Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy seem to be the postscripts to more optimistic films: Old Joy explores the long-growing personal alienation that can occur between once-invincible friends; Wendy and Lucy is rather more dramatic, appearing to occur shortly after some climactic personal event. This is what happens after you get out of Dodge and speed to the horizon: you realise the world is round.
That so-called “Reichardtian style” is what gives these films such weighty interest. Directing, editing and usually writing or co-writing, Reichardt exerts great control over pace – to the point that her work has largely been dubbed “slow cinema”: minimalist, atmospheric, full of long takes. The word “slow” is an awkward one; it is technically accurate, but seems pejorative. Reichardt provides added realism by focusing carefully on actions usually elided, such as two men getting undressed or a character walking from one end of a parking lot to another. She insists on keeping her actors’ performances entirely natural, which often means inscrutable. For Reichardt’s leads, it can take an entire film for a performance to reveal the passions driving it, which is partly what makes the work so involving: we’re looking for a way in. Each moment is specifically calibrated to relate present action to past selves and past experiences, and to suggest – projected somewhere offscreen, right up to the final shot – what may lie waiting in the future.
This is nowhere more potent than in Reichardt’s fourth film, Meek’s Cutoff (2010). Based partly on a true story involving real-life fur trapper Stephen Meek, this more ambitious piece is one of the most intriguing entries in this recent series of modern, revised, Westerns. Reichardt and her now-regular DoP, Chris Blauvelt, use a classic pre-1950s aspect ratio of 1.33:1, yet retain the glorious colours of a far more modern film; the tension between styles (accustomed to widescreen, we feel the landscapes should be freer, less boxed-in) mirroring a tension between myth and reality: we may think of the great westward pilgrimages of the mid 19th century, but the day-to-day reality was far more mundane than any grand narrative.
So it is that not only are the characters of Meek’s Cutoff dragging their own barely-revealed pasts with them; we too experience this with the weight of our historical understanding, and our experiences with the “Old West” on film. The film follows three couples, plus a child, trekking along the Oregon Trail on their way out west, led by mercurial guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). The journey, and in some ways the movie, are incredibly arduous and slow-moving, and far from entailing much high drama instead involve things like setting up camp, hanging out clothes, and a lot of walking. The threat of Injuns constantly hangs over them, though never really transpires; instead we hear about Native savagery entirely through Meek himself, who regales his charges with accounts of skinning, scalping and more. The mediation is important; the often-perceptive Peter Bradshaw once compared Meek with John Wayne’s character in The Searchers, an iconic totem of white hysterical disgust. At the same time as the travellers of Meek’s Cutoff experience the realities of life on the pioneer trail, we must contend with a stark realist revision of certain tropes held dear; not merely the usual “revisionist Western” ideas of ultraviolence and lawlessness, but genuinely boundary-pushing ones like the role of women and, again, the prevalence of gruelling, uncinematic hardship. Why go on the road if this is the result?
In all these films the American road is seen as a legitimate escape – Reichardt is keen to retain certain romantic, even transcendentalist, elements, particularly in her ever-beautiful landscape photography. Awe is drawn from the way people exist among wild environs. Some of Wendy and Lucy‘s finest moments come as Wendy branches out into the town’s surrounding forestry, a late-summer twilight effervescing everything. Yet there is a fallacious mythologising at its heart, expressed through characters trying to grasp new lives and new experiences without quite managing to hang on. Kurt fails to really reconnect with Mark, and the two simply go home; despite his rambling cris de coeur, Kurt’s vision of a big buddy road trip dissolves into huffs and sighs. Wendy stalls on her way to a new life in Alaska, and loses a number of important things. The travellers of Meek’s Cutoff have taken a wrong turn and, by the end, seem increasingly unlikely to ever settle into a comfortable new life. We have, basically, a grand ironic tension between intent, or dreams, and the more mundane reality that often appears.
Despite this, though, Reichardt is keen not to pronounce too negatively on her characters. In a sense, her films are celebratory. Each story is ultimately methodical; small obstacles must be traversed in order to convey characters to logical conclusions. Wendy and Lucy in particular is driven by this humanist impulse, but looking beyond the mystical, somewhat despairing ending of Meek’s Cutoff reveals the same ideas. Problems are made to be solved; people are often strong.
After her first four films though, Reichardt presented us with a much weaker protagonist: Jesse Eisenberg’s Josh, in 2013’s Night Moves. An eco-activist who plots to explode a dam, Josh seems at all times to be taking the measure of things, looking at people and not saying much. He has a brief diatribe against people “charging their fucking iPods,” and the limpness of his argument and the bruised frustration of his delivery are fascinating. He’s consumed more with a general impotent rage than a specific concern. He rarely talks about the actual environment, or politics, and lacks much passion. He has a problem with most everything, and that’s where the real story lies. Through road trips back and forth across the northern states, sometimes with his accomplices (Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) and sometimes without, we slowly come to piece Josh together as a character – remarkably, all without finding out anything about his background or previous life. By applying her usual stylistic concerns to a real thriller plot (there are suspense scenes and everything!), Reichardt reveals the undercurrent driving all her films: that on the road, one can see what one is made of.
The idea becomes so obvious here because it has such a different structure. Building on similar rhythms in Meek’s Cutoff – which shifts midway from sheer hardship to something more classically dramatic when the group pick up a Native – Night Moves provides an almost conventional progression from planning the explosion, to executing the explosion, to a kind of paranoia and distancing in the aftermath. Reichardt therefore manages to draw a direct contrast between Josh on his mission and Josh on his own, making her familiar notions of flattened drama more stark. When everything slows down in the second half the psychological depth on display becomes almost unbearable; actions, Josh learns, have consequences, and we come to see that the endgames promised by road journeys – in this case to buy bomb materials, to flee the scene, to meet conspirators – are never remotely as conclusive as we would like.
In other words, when Reichardt zooms in on small periods in her characters’ lives, the idea of a personal journey is both exalted and interrogated. Trite as it is to say, the “road” is a metaphor. It offers escape from difficulty and a track toward hope, though it is itself difficult and sometimes hopeless. It would be foolish to claim these as happy films; but there is always the sense of something getting done, at least in small steps. The one piece of advice given to Josh at the end of Night Moves is to “Get real lost, and stay lost.” But isn’t that what he’s already been doing? Losing himself in half-baked notions of eco-heroism and off-the-grid living? As with Meek’s Cutoff, we see explicitly that there never was an heroic American road journey; that far from birthing a long-lasting “pioneer spirit” the country’s great legacy of Manifest Destiny and the great transcendental outdoors has been a kind of desperation – not a zest for freedom, but an unvarnished need for survival.
Thus, when Reichardt gives us great journeys they don’t often seem that great. There is a dark heart at the centre of our “journey” narratives; though, as shown in each of the above films, sometimes our best revelations come in the dark. The director tends to exaggerate her characters’ experiences at nighttime – an occultist flavoring that shows the truest extent of our need to abandon the path. Whether these moments come out negatively or positively is not an interpretation she forces on us. But that’s the Reichardt style all over. She will often let a character talk for some time, but cut to other things in the meantime: other people, objects, the landscape. It’s not what we expect. It’s not the done style. But it’s sometimes best to come off the beaten track.