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Kelly Reichardt’s Uncertain Lives

The director has made a career populating her films with characters that choose the difficult path in life.

IFC Films

In the final section of Kelly Reichardt’s new film Certain Womenwhich tells three interconnected stories about the unsettled lives of several women in Montana—Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a ranch hand, begins to audit a twice-weekly adult education course taught by Beth, (Kristen Stewart), a lawyer who lives four hours away. The two quietly develop a routine: Jamie shuttles Beth from the college to a greasy spoon in her pickup truck, watches her pick through a sandwich and fries, takes her back to her car, and waves goodbye as Beth drives through black ice, cattle runs, and road blocks to get back home around two in the morning. The geographical distance between them is allegorical, a gulf that seems impossible to bridge, despite Jamie’s concerted effort to forge a connection.

One night, Jamie surprises Beth by escorting her to the diner on the back of a horse. With typical restraint, Reichardt doesn’t overplay the significance of the gesture or clarify the feelings that linger between them—the scene is awkward, sweet, and carries a kind of low-key magic. For Jamie, it could be a muted romantic appeal, or a sign of her longing for companionship, given that much of her day is devoted to the lonely ritual of tending animals. Mostly, the gesture feels like an expression of who Jamie is—a woman living out of time and in the open air, without any connection to the modern world.

In other words, she’s a Kelly Reichardt character—and, to a meaningful extent, she is Kelly Reichardt, an iconoclast who has been tending her own ranch for over twenty years, with little regard to the ebbs and flows of the scene around her. Her 1994 debut, River of Grass, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival just as independent films were becoming a viable business for smaller production companies like Miramax—which picked up Clerks the same year—as well as major studios like Fox, which added buzzy boutique labels to their stables in order to forge relationships with young, promising filmmakers. But River of Grass didn’t catch that wave, and neither did Reichardt; she wouldn’t make another full-length feature until Old Joy, twelve years later in 2006, still without a studio’s dime. Old Joy felt like a missing piece from Reichardt’s early work—it’s a quiet, meditative film in which two disconnected childhood friends go on an overnight camping trip in the Cascade Mountains. Old Joy solidified Reichardt’s status as an independent director, as well as her abiding interest in characters that chose the difficult path in life, one that takes them away from friends, society, or even themselves.

Since Old Joy, Reichardt has worked more steadily and to greater acclaim, turning out films every few years while teaching courses at New York University, Columbia University, and Bard College, where she’s currently an artist-in-residence. She remains one of the last true independents in the sense that making independent films was, for her, never a means to an end; it’s doubtful you’ll see Reichardt angling for Hollywood suitors or landing her very own show on Netflix or Amazon. (The struggle to get financing after Sundance was a sobering experience for her, and like many indie filmmakers, she’s spent her career cobbling together money from a variety of sources.) Reichardt’s style—austere, deliberate, with an aversion to melodrama and an eye for telling detail—isn’t suitable for mainstream audiences anyway. Even if it were, her interest in uncertain lives defies the purposefulness of the hero’s quest—her characters may search for who they are and where they belong, but often arrive at complicated, ambiguous answers.

To watch a Reichardt film is to be reminded of an America that exists outside the walk-ups of Park Slope, one in which the dangers and splendors of nature still have a role to play. “There’s trees in the city and garbage in the forest,” muses a character in Old Joy. “What’s the difference?” Reichardt lets that rhetorical question hang, but it does make a difference in the relationship between two friends whose lives are on divergent paths—one toward marriage and impending fatherhood, the other drifting toward townie stasis. As they trek through the Cascade Mountains, the environment imposes an intimacy that forces them to confront some uncomfortable truths about their friendship.

Civilization does not exist apart from nature in Reichardt’s work—the two have to be reconciled, often painfully. Meek’s Cutoff (2010), her masterful Western about six settlers and their guide on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s, defies the genre, emphasizing arduousness over adventure by focusing on the brutal practicalities of crossing a desert landscape with limited supplies. Every step along the path lands heavy to the insistent creak of a wagon wheel, and Reichardt turns the contrast between the deliberate crawl west and the threat of dwindling food and water into a source of agonizing tension; the film’s biggest set piece is a scene in which the group lowers a wagon down a rocky hill, a rope snap away from certain oblivion.

The stakes aren’t quite so high in her 2013 eco-thriller Night Moves, but they certainly feel that way for the young environmental activists (Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning) who team up with an ex-Marine (Peter Sarsgaard) to sabotage a hydroelectric dam. When the group attempts to buy fertilizer for the bomb, Reichardt again mines tension from the seemingly mundane. But it’s the moral consequences of the characters’ actions that bear down on the film most heavily, the human folly that perverts their idealism. Committing a terrorist act is an extreme and corrosive response to environmental abuse—and an ineffectual one, at that—but Reichardt keys into the youthful impulse to make a real, lasting impact on the world, however misguided it may be. Her characters have been relegated to the margins, cast out by a society that tramples thoughtlessly on the land they care about, and the film attempts to make sense of their actions.

While Reichardt isn’t a political filmmaker per se, she persistently returns to characters who don’t fit into their particular time and place, and her sympathies naturally tilt toward the disenfranchised. Her devastating 2008 drama Wendy and Lucy, about a young loner (Michelle Williams) and her dog stranded in a small town en route to Alaska, exposes the harsh realities of living hand-to-mouth in a country without a safety net. One stalled-out car is enough to send Reichardt’s hero off the precipice, forced into a narrowing—and finally, heartbreaking—series of choices that put her basic survival at stake. Stories like Wendy’s are common in America but uncommon on screen, even in the independent world, where living on the cheap is usually more of a quirk than an existential crisis.

A feminist impulse has crept into her work of late. What is Meek’s Cutoff if not the story of a woman (Williams again, a Reichart muse) whose fate is tethered to the loud, arrogant certainty of man? The first story in Certain Women treads a similar path: A mentally unstable man, seeking compensation for a workplace injury, avoids the advice of his lawyer (Laura Dern), instead waiting eight months for a male lawyer to give him the same advice. Her patience, empathy, and courage in the face of his derangement lends her dignity and strength, but she’s denied the acknowledgement of power.

For Reichardt, that power continues to exist outside the strictures of Hollywood, which remains at a safe distance from her end of the Pacific coastline. Her independence is not a burden but a necessity, inextricably tied to characters who are themselves authentic outsiders, committed to doing things the hard way. For Williams’ character in Certain Women, that means negotiating for a pile of sandstone to work into the foundation of the home she and her husband are building for their family. The “native” sandstone, once part of an old schoolhouse, is a detail that’s important to her, even if it’s significance might be lost on many, not to mention those who don’t care to look. It’s no mistake that two of Reichardt’s films, Old Joy and Certain Women, are adapted from short stories, because she’s a short story writer in an industry crammed with novelists. And brick by brick, she continues to lay down a brilliant career.