The routine is apparent: Wendy (Michelle Williams) counts her remaining cash at the end of the day, $525 left and about halfway to Alaska according to her journal, her and her dog Lucy go to bed in the car. The routine is broken the next morning when she’s awakened by a security guard (Wally Dalton) telling her she can’t sleep in the lot. She tries to start the car, but it only makes a violent sputtering sound. Her and the guard push it the roadside, and the anxiety sets in—this is going to be expensive.
Wendy and Lucy is in many ways the greatest, quietest film of the recession era, going into production after the subprime mortgage market had already started to collapse, and being released commercially after the big bank bailouts and the global financial crisis was in full swing. It is her film with the most explicit downward spiral of precarity that all her movies touch upon, and with another economic recession seem to once again loom ahead, now is a better time than ever to return to the filmography Kelly Reichardt.
Her characters find themselves teetering on the edge, living in a state of constant uncertainty. Her first film to be taken out of the present, Meek’s Cutoff, follows a group of settlers along the Oregon trail, lost in the desert in search of water. And while this may be the most literal metaphor she’s portrayed for this kind of precarity, her approach is what keeps the film from being on the nose. The conflict of where to lead the wagon train is shot from the women’s perspective, the voices of the bickering men barely audible from a half-mile away. Instead of the overt drama of the scenario, Reichardt focuses on the routines at play—the cooking, the cleaning, the way the clothes are hung to dry, the monotony of crossing a barren landscape.
Bar 160 years, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff are strikingly similar films—movies about travellers in a near-dead landscape, on their way to the promised lands. “Not a lot of jobs around here, huh?” Wendy asks the guard at the film’s midpoint, right then he’s the closest thing she has to a friend. “I don’t know what people do all day,” he responds, not derisively, but out of genuine concern. “Used to be a mill, but its been closed a long time now. Don’t know what they do.” So many are left behind, and Reichardt brings this out through those that dream of escaping, the mythic American dreamers, the people that pulp western novelists and beatniks have been obsessed with finding it. Her characters exist in a world where that dream no longer exists, or if it does, everything in the world is keeping them from finding it, and the reality of it is much less sexy than what has been romanticised.
Reichardt herself is no stranger to this life: after being thrown back to the fringes when her debut, River of Grass, failed to reach its audience, she couched surfed and stayed in the avant-garde for over a decade. It wasn’t until Old Joy in 2006 that she would return and be talked about as one of the greatest of a generation. Here, she presented two foils of liberal ideals—Mark (Daniel London), the suburban husband who listens to progressive talk radio, and Kurt (Will Oldham), the guy who is still chasing the experience even though it’s not cute anymore at his age. The former willingly criticises the system, but buys into it enough that he’s personally and financially stable, and the latter refuses to “sell out” and lives on the verge of homelessness because of it.
The story revolves around Kurt rolling through town and calling up Mark to go camping at some hot springs, seemingly to reconnect or rekindle an old friendship that one has “outgrown” and the other fears. On the drive up, Kurt mentions that he’s going to sell some of his old records for extra cash, and Mark tells him that their old spot is gone. “…only records left in the bins were our friends’.” The rent got too expensive, and Syd’s turned into a smoothie shop. “No more Syd’s… end of an era.” The post-industrial city they drive through slowly makes way for trees and mountains. However, they may not be all that different from the place they left, as Kurt points out, “The cities are full of trees and the woods are full of trash, there’s no difference anymore.” The landscape of Old Joy, and, really, all of Reichardt’s films, exist in a sort of post-apocalypse, whether that be natural or economic.
Night Moves, her most overtly political movie, if only because of the overtly political characters, follows a group of environmental extremists in their attempt to blow up a dam, trying to restore a natural order. Reichardt sees no such hope in reversing the effects of the past—even though the characters end up being successful, their actions lead to a hiker dying, their own mental health rapidly degrading, and a side character pointing out that it was ultimately meaningless because there’s a dozen other dams on the same river. Their attempt to upend the system in favour of something else is a failure in every way, arguably making the world worse off and even further ravaged place.
Early on, one of the characters jives at all the golf courses popping up in the high desert in central Oregon, the same desert so desolate in Meek’s. Maybe the west was ultimately conquered, but it’s clear that the prosperity is neither natural nor for anyone but the already wealthy. Those who struggle with the land have a different story, most explored by Reichardt in the final story of Certain Women centered on a rancher (Lily Gladstone) and her fondness for a transient classroom law teacher (Kristen Stewart). The mythic setting of the film, under the big sky and sharp mountains of Montana, is brought down to earth by Reichardt by highlighting the ordinary, banal existence within this landscape. The rancher is introduced through routine — opening the barn, letting the horses out, shovelling hay and shit, the beauty of the landscape as inappreciable to her as the desert was to the pilgrims of Meek’s Cutoff. And whereas those travellers were short of resources necessary for bare survival, Gladstone’s rancher is bereft of human connection. And yet, all any of them can do is return to routine.
Perhaps fittingly, Meek’s Cutoff ends when production ran out of money, forcing them to turn the last filmed sequence into the final moments of the film. The party finds themselves at a dead tree, with the Cayuse man (Rod Rondeaux), who has attempted to guide them despite a language barrier, walking off into the horizon. It is unsure if they will find water, they could die in this desert after all. It is that uncertainty that is at the heart of Reichardt’s films, and because of it, the character’s only choice is to keep trying to move forward. One wrong thing with the car can, and does, lead Wendy into a completely impossible situation that continues to drag down her plans, mental health, and last remaining cash. Regardless, she has to strive for Alaska.
by Alex Lei
Alex Lei is a writer and filmmaker with a BA from Montana State University where he studied film and philosophy. Currently based in Baltimore, MD, his favorite films usually involve Russians, cowboys, and the occasional Russian cowboy. You can follow him on Twitter @brakhagestan for (occasional) film related tweets.