Night Moves and Personal Apocalypses: The Films Of Kelly Reichardt

None of director Kelly Reichardt's films has made over $1 million at the box office. That seems about right. It's not that her superb dramas don't deserve a bigger audience. But because they're so intimate, so understated, they feel like secrets: the cinematic equivalent of the bootlegs die-hard Dylan or Dead fans used to circulate among the faithful before the dawn of the Internet.

She makes movies about people who seem to be hiding in plain sight: twentysomething drifters, hippie burnouts, luckless 19th-century settlers. The results have the slightness and resonance of a great short story—the kind you want to immediately start reading again after you finish it, because it's just this perfect little jewel. Her low-budget, unassuming films aren't for everyone, but if you're in that select group that loves them, she's as major a filmmaker as anyone around.

Her latest is her starriest, but it's probably going to do the same modest business. It's called Night Moves, and it stars Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard as a group of ecological terrorists plotting to blow up an Oregon dam. Of her string of recent Oregon-set films (which also includes Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and Meek's Cutoff), it's her first thriller, but the plot twists (though expertly executed) aren't what stay with you. Once again, Reichardt is quietly and patiently observing those on the margins. "To live outside the law, you must be honest," Dylan advised in "Absolutely Sweet Marie." These films illustrate the wisdom of that seeming paradox: Her characters have consciously removed themselves from traditional life, but instead of experiencing freedom, they realize that their margin of error is far slimmer.

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Born in Miami, Reichardt launched her career in 1994 with the Everglades-set River of Grass, a Bonnie-and-Clyde story that was a hit at Sundance and earned three Independent Spirit Award nominations. She was courted by Hollywood, but found the experience dispiriting, stuck in development hell on a project she was pursuing for Jodie Foster. "It made me shut down," she told the New York Times in 2006, so instead she pursued teaching and focused on short films that could express her minimalist, non-mainstream aesthetic. Recalling an experience at the Venice Film Festival when she wasn't invited to a glitzy event the year her 1999 feature Ode played there, she saw the snub as a sign of her unconventional path. "I had a realization then about how I wanted to keep working," she said. "Making a film any other way is like fighting to get into a party I don't want to be at."

Reichardt instead created her own party. Working with short-story author Jonathan Raymond, she developed one of his tales for Old Joy, a 2006 drama about two middle-aged friends—Kurt, a permanent wanderer (Will Oldham), and his best friend Mark (Daniel London) who's settled down and is expecting his first child—who decide to reunite for a camping trip in the Oregon woods.

Anticipating Portlandia's satire of hipster faux-enlightenment, it's ostensibly a story about fading male friendship, but it's really looking at the challenge of holding onto one's idealism as age starts to creep in. Both men came of age as '60s-era liberals, but somewhere along the way life intervened, turning Kurt into a glorified hobo wary of normalcy and Mark into a comprised version of his former radical self. But the movie doesn't mock its characters; Reichardt identified too closely with the two men to be smug. ("After I made River of Grass, I lived for five years without an apartment, couch-hopping with a duffel bag, so I feel like I know Kurt," she confessed to the Times. "That freedom could have been romantic at one point. But after your mid-thirties, it's suddenly scary, and you're aware of a different judgment that your friends have about the way you're living." As for Mark, whose political awareness is limited to listening passively to Air America, she added, "Just turning on the radio and being back with that voice that allows him to feel right and almost active when he's actually not doing anything—I relate to that.")

Old Joy was a quiet, meditative film full of lush images of the woods: It was almost as if the characters left the physical world for some alien terrain cut off from reality. That's where Reichardt's films have operated ever since: The Oregon of her stories is one where the natural world dominates, a symbol of the spiritual isolation her characters feel. She's never articulated that dynamic as well as she did in Wendy and Lucy, one of the last decade's finest films that also contains Michelle Williams' greatest performance.

Williams plays Wendy, who is traveling with her dog Lucy on a cross-country trip from the Midwest to Alaska, getting sidetracked in Oregon when her car breaks down. Again based on a Raymond short story, it's a Bicycle Thieves-like tale of how Wendy tries to track down her missing pooch in the small town they're stuck in. Released in December 2008, mere months after the financial meltdown, it felt eerily prescient, penniless Wendy's search amid this poverty-stricken community an unexpected metaphor for the whole country's grappling with this new Great Recession. Williams was the biggest star Reichardt had worked with to that point, but her portrayal eschewed the usual glamorous-actress-pretends-to-be-ordinary gimmicks: Her Wendy was so profoundly lost and shaken that it cuts you to the core. The film's ending, which I won't spoil, is meant to be ambiguous, but to me it's always been crystal-clear. Wendy is heading off into a personal apocalypse, a future so bleak Reichardt fades out so as not to kill our spirit by showing it play out.

Personal apocalypses are a theme in Reichardt's films: Her outsider characters are always a step away from oblivion. That was never more true than in her and Williams' next collaboration, Meek's Cutoff, a deeply unromantic Western written by Raymond. (She even shot the film in the boxy 1:33 aspect ratio, denying the images the widescreen beauty we associate with gorgeous shots of large open spaces.) In the film, Williams is Emily, part of a group journeying across the Oregon Trail in 1845, led by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a guide whose assurances that he knows where he's going get less reassuring the more off-course they get.

Unlike the forests of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, this one leads us through barren, deserted, mountainous terrain, another arresting, beautiful Reichardt environment that seems inhospitable to its visitors. This is a movie of bone-dry existential despair. (The story doesn't rise or fall so much as it determinedly moves forward step by step in concert with its weary characters.) But as with all of Reichardt's films, it drills into the nervous system in its patient, insistent way. And like the best filmmakers, sometimes she has to wing it. The original ending had to be scrapped when they ran out of time and daylight, so instead she had to come up with a poetic, distressingly unresolved final note.

Again, I won't reveal what happens, but in the four years since I first saw Meek's Cutoff, I've found myself thinking about its ending with an alarming frequency. "[The circumstances] led me to an ending which was more suited to the film," she told The Guardian, but really, it's suited to all her films, which explore how the journeys we go on will reach a final destination that was predetermined by the people that embarked on them in the first place.

That grim sense of destiny is potently felt in her latest, and one of her best. Night Moves is again co-written by Reichardt and Raymond, and it has a Crime and Punishment structure. The first half involves the process by which our three mild-mannered activists go about their plan. (The film is so subdued that the characters never overtly discuss their scheme; we just observe them as they gather the materials they'll need for the "thing" they never mention out loud.) Reichardt's storytelling is always spare, but in Night Moves it's particularly spartan, which only increases the tension.

The film's second half involves the fallout from the trio's plan, and even if you think you know how it'll play out, Reichardt is smarter and subtler than the typical one-big-heist filmmaker. Maybe it's because she was never that concerned with the plot. As with all her films, Night Moves is about characters who think they're just a few moves away from happiness or personal fulfillment: a spiritual reunion with an old friend, the promising job in Alaska, a better life in the West. Like Reichardt, they've said goodbye to the conventional to pursue their own path. That strategy has worked out very well for her—her characters, not so much.

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.

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