The Films of Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt was a director I never expected to be so in tune with. After all, with my favorite director being none other than French provocateur Gaspar Noé, and my second (now third) favorite directors being the precise, brilliant Coen Brothers, it seemed like a stretch that such a relaxed, niche director would come anywhere close to that level of adoration. Perhaps it was the concepts of some of her films — criminal and housewife run away together, what sounded like a low-tier adaptation of The Monkey Wrench Gang (ironically, a lawsuit came up because of this), three short films with, shudder, Kristen Stewart in one of them. But after finishing her fourth release, I realized that I may have been on to something. So now, with her newest film, First Cow, being publicly available, I figured it would only make sense to go through all her movies — and subsequently rank them. So without further ado, here are the seven feature length films of Kelly Reichardt, my second favorite director.

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Lee (Larry Fessenden) and Cozy (Lisa Bowman)

7. River of Grass (1994)

First movies from my favorite filmmakers usually hit. Whether it be the tearjerking Iñárritu masterpiece Amores Perros, Steve McQueen’s intense, intelligent biopic Hunger, or Jonathan Glazer’s screaming, raging “gangster” flick Sexy Beast — it’s always a delight to see what foot those who inspire me started off on — and it’s usually a good one.

And I am in no way implying that River of Grass isn’t a good foot to start on, it just feels like a half step that Old Joy would take in full twelve years later. The first thirty minutes of this film had me pumped. Where would it go? How would these two characters inevitably meet? What would happen when they did? After that — well, you’ve seen the placement on this list.

Reichardt’s films are usually about holding up a funhouse mirror to traditional American values — camping trips, pioneering, cross country journeys in search of a good job — and showing how those values collapse when not in the vacuum of a wholesome “American and proud” joint. This scenario could be interpreted as a play on the romanticization of the “Bonnie and Clyde” story (and if so, there’s definitely a good amount of irony behind it), but it’s not a very effective one. If anything, it feels a little far-fetched.

It’s pretty damn well shot for a first feature, a trend that will never die down with all of her following films, but it just doesn’t have the same impact the rest do, you know?

Rating: 7/10

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Dena (Dakota Fanning), Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard)

6. Night Moves (2013)

Every director has their one. Their basic piece, the one they create with the general public in mind, not the audience used to their style and voice. Unless you’re Michael Haneke, who remade his German film that disguised itself as a mainstream movie shot for shot in America. He just kind of became Filmmaking Christ at that point, so it’s best to ignore that.

But this article isn’t about how much I love Haneke (and believe me, that day will come), it’s about how much I love Reichardt — and I still like this movie a lot. Most Reichardt films work so well because their conflicts feel minimal and real. Two friends aren’t as close anymore. This lady’s dog is missing. This woman wants to buy a large chunk of rock. So when I read that this movie was about three people blowing up a dam and then one of them starting to crack under the pressure of guilt after it doesn’t go off flawlessly, it didn’t feel like the ante was just upped — it felt like it went up in the explosion.

Of course, this isn’t some BS action flick where Eisenberg stands on the edge of the boat he and his accomplices used to set the explosives and faces away from the burning dam behind him. This is a Kelly Reichardt film. We never see the explosion (or the aftermath) — it’s not some garbage CGI fireball, it’s just an event that serves as the catalyst for the rest of the story. It gets surprisingly dark in the third act, but that’s also the point where it becomes ridiculously goofy in presentation. The only standout performance of the bunch is Eisenberg (he’s not just Mark Zuckerberg, c’mon), with Peter Sarsgaard being fairly mixed and Fanning being simply unconvincing. The largely ineffective score doesn’t help with the feelings of “mainstream”.

Still, it’s shot pretty excellently, as per usual — the talent Reichardt displays when it comes to using natural light in her shots is continuously fantastic, and there’s definite ambition to be found — it’s just that the lackluster presentation fails to bring it to life with the flawlessness of the other films higher on this list.

Rating: 7/10

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Laura (Laura Dern), Beth (Kristen Stewart), Jamie (Lily Gladstone), and Gina (Michelle Williams)

5. Certain Women (2016)

Up until now, it’s been easy to rank these movies. River of Grass and Night Moves are just good — I have no doubt about that. But it gets hard here. The following five films are nothing short of phenomenal, two of them being my favorites of the years they came out in — so naturally, it was pretty difficult to decide what went where.

And trust me, despite the fact that this is on the lower half of this list, Certain Women is nothing short of mesmerizing. On the surface, this seems like the least interesting of Reichardt’s films. “Short stories about…characters…who do things.” Riveting, I know. But somehow, in some way, Reichardt took what could have been a boring slog and turned into a completely enthralling experience.

Certain Women tells three different stories — Laura Dern is a lawyer with a troubled, embittered client (Jared Harris) who ends up taking extreme measures to get what he wants, Michelle Williams is on a road trip with her husband and teenage daughter and attempts to buy a chunk of sandstone, Lily Gladstone is a ranch hand who ends up in a night school law class taught by Kristen Stewart, and forms an uncertain fascination with her. At least two of these seem basic and baseless, and yet Reichardt makes them interesting.

Stories like these don’t call for shots this good, but of course, Reichardt and regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt deliver. The music is used very well, which is not something I find myself often praising her movies for, and yet, there it is. It’s a movie that should never have worked. But because there was talent and ambition put into every aspect of the production, it did.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I owe Kristen Stewart an apology.

Rating: 9/10

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The eponymous Wendy (Michelle Williams) and Lucy

4. Wendy and Lucy (2008)

I liked the dog.

It’s impressive to me that Reichardt can take such a paper-thin premise, stretch it out into a 90 minute film, and make it good. Michelle Williams is at her absolute best in this role, displaying a shocking amount of emotion for a character in which at least a third of her screentime is just her walking.

There’s a lot of thoughtful commentary on just how frustrating classism can be, multiple people looking down on the protagonist just because she’s “lower” than them. It’s really stupid watching these conflicts play out from a third person perspective, seeing unfair situations get worse and worse. Reichardt manages to get very natural and convincing performances out of actors who show up for less than ten seconds, which is an impressive feat within itself.

It’s simplistic in design, with not many things happening in the story — it’s as if Wendy goes from point A to point A2, then A3, then back to A2, and we never quite get to see a point B. It’s probably the best movie of hers to start with if you’re looking to get into her stuff, as this is an experience that tests your patience but ultimately rewards you, a common trope in her other works.

The ending is easily the most upsetting thing that Reichardt has ever filmed, almost fooling us into thinking things will be okay, but then assuring you no, it’s not going to be, you’re just an overemotional idiot. That wasn’t very nice of you, Kelly.

Rating: 9/10

King-Lu (Orion Lee) and Cookie (John Magaro)

3. First Cow (2019)

Most Reichardt movies about friendship are often not very friendly. The friendships are fraying, or they’ve been split apart by some unforeseen circumstance. So imagine my surprise to watch a film by her that features such a strong bond that doesn’t break.

Reichardt’s second period piece is almost like a fairy tale in ways. Two lonely characters in a strange land find companionship in each other and start making revenue using their individual skills. There’s even an evil king that threatens to disrupt their way of life.

Unlike Meek’s Cutoff, there is NO room to slack on the period aspects here. There are no sets in her first period piece, so all there was to worry about were the costumes and a few stray props, but First Cow has multiple scenes indoors — and of course, it’s pulled off flawlessly.

The acting is excellent as usual. The chemistry between John Magaro and Orion Lee is enough to put a smile on anyone’s face. On top of both of them being just likable as hell, seeing these two lost souls find their way in this strange new land is incredibly endearing, and watching them start to win is just so, so satisfying.

And just like Meek’s Cutoff, it’s so fully realized, every nook and cranny of the outpost and forest feeling so lived in, so perfect, so real. The ending could be interpreted as “sad” on the surface, but just like Wendy and Lucy, First Cow plays a shell game with the emotions of those who dig deeper, and if you choose to do so, you may realize just how powerful this film can be.

Rating: 9/10

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Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham)

2. Old Joy (2006)

Considering one of my favorite films of all time is a green colored hiking movie about a strained relationship directed by a woman (the severely underseen The Loneliest Planet), I expected to love Old Joy — but I didn’t expect I’d be this enraptured by it.

I’ve grown apart from people before, and it’s not as though it explicitly hurts, but it’s awkward when you see them again. It’s something I’m sure at least a few people reading this can relate to — so imagine how awkward it would be to go on a weekend long camping trip with that person.

There’s almost no plot to this. In fact, this is easily the most plot-less, stake-less movie in Reichardt’s filmography. The characters’ friendship isn’t on the line, it’s already halfway off it, resting on a tree branch that could give way to a barely painful fall at any moment.

It looks fantastic, surprise surprise. It sounds great as well — something I feel as though people don’t credit Reichardt films enough for. It’s a quiet movie, but never silent. Bugs making…bug noises…birds chirping, water rushing, it’s all there, and it sounds so thoroughly realistic.

Depending on what you want out of this film, this may not be for you. If the pain of a failed friendship is fresh in your mind, it probably won’t be fun (although you may still enjoy the experience), but if you’re feeling fine and looking for an immersive, soothing experience that’s under an hour and twenty minutes, I can point you nowhere else but here.

Rating: 10/10

Emily (Michelle Williams)

1. Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

The western genre has two faces. The face that often sees the light of day is the prettiest one, the more beloved half of a typical Sergio Leone film — the conflict. Suave, handsome men flashing toothy smiles at their darkly clothed adversary while the waaah, waaah, waaaaah of a Morricone (RIP) piece rings across the cloudless sky. The face that most people don’t want to see is the environment — the dirt on which the gunfights take place, the rocks the missed shots glance off of. But who wants to look at a face made of gross old dirt and jagged rocks when you could stare at the lovely one made of the steel of pistols and the leather of cowboy boots? Kelly Reichardt wants to. And she wants to show other people, too. And if you’re willing to look, you may discover that the dirt face looks even better.

From the opening scene, the tone is perfectly set — it’s as simple as an ox-drawn wagon fording a river, but the music, the colors (or lack thereof), and the sounds perfectly create the environment the viewer will spend the next one hour and forty-five minutes of their life in. Similar to Old Joy, it’s incredibly light on plot (although there is a major conflict this time!) and masterfully shot. But unlike Old Joy, which feels self-contained and small, Meek’s Cutoff feels abundantly large in scale. This feeling is set perfectly in a simple shot of the wagon party we follow walking, just walking, and going off camera — and the shot lingers on another party, a long distance away in the background. The characters are not isolated in the slightest, and yet, there’s an uneasy feeling all around, both in universe and out.

The acting is all perfectly convincing, perhaps the most intensely performed a Reichardt has ever been. Michelle Williams+Kelly Reichardt=amazing performance, and if Paul Thomas Anderson has taught us anything, Paul Dano+western setting=amazing performance as well.

If Old Joy reminds me of The Loneliest Planet, Meek’s Cutoff reminds me of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, a film in which two men become lost in Death Valley without food or water and have to wander the endless desert in an attempt to find their way out, never seeming to find said way. It feels like the wagon party is going in circles. We never see them progress, really. We only watch them forge forward, but how far have they really gone? We never know.

And that’s the beauty of Kelly Reichardt. In the grand scheme of things, hardly anything is accomplished in most of her films. We don’t know if the wagon party makes it. We don’t know if Mark and Kurt try again with their friendship. We don’t know if Wendy gets to where she wants to go. All we can do is let ourselves get pulled in, and make our own conclusions.

Rating: 10/10

Where to find these films as of publication (US REGION ONLY):

River of Grass: Stream on Prime, Criterion Channel or Kanopy, purchase on Vudu, Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, or Youtube

Night Moves: Stream on Prime or Hoopla, purchase on Redbox, Amazon, Vudu, Microsoft, Google Play, or YouTube

Certain Women: Stream on Criterion Channel, purchase on Vudu, Apple TV, Amazon (buy only), Google Play (buy only), or Youtube (buy only)

Wendy and Lucy: Stream on Prime, Hoopla, Criterion Channel, Tubi, Kanopy, or Sundance Now, purchase on Amazon, Microsoft, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, or Fandango Now

First Cow: Purchase on Redbox, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Fandango Now, Vudu, Microsoft, Apple TV, DirectTV, or FlixFling

Old Joy: Stream on Criterion Channel

Meek’s Cutoff: Stream on Prime, Hulu, Hoopla, Vudu Free, Criterion Channel, Tubi, Kanopy, Crackle, Popcornflix, or Dark Matter TV, purchase on Vudu, Microsoft, Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, or YouTube

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