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Kelly Reichardt’s outsiders

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Kelly Reichardt has said, “My films are just glimpses of people passing through.” In the opening scene of her most recent film Certain Women (2016), a train cuts across the sparse Montana landscape. The image captures this transience. The train’s movement echoes in the stories that follow, fleeting glimpses into certain women’s lives. There’s also resonance with Reichardt’s earlier films – with the men hiking in Old Joy (2006); with Wendy searching for her dog Lucy in Wendy and Lucy (2008); and in the wagon train moving along the Oregon Trail in Meek’s Cutoff (2010).

The typical Reichardt protagonist is often on the move. She or he (though mostly she) is a drifter or outcast, stuck where they are and trying to get by, dreaming of escape, or moving through towards a better life. Reichardt’s films are primarily associated with the vast spaces of the Pacific Northwest region. Certain Women is set and shot in Montana, a departure that nonetheless continues Reichardt’s exploration of America as a quiet, alienating place.

Reichardt understands the outsider experience. She’s one of the most original and admired American independent filmmakers, but she’s only made six feature films in 22 years. There was a gap of eight years between her debut feature, River of Grass (1994) and Old Joy (she made shorts, and commenced a teaching career that continues today). Reichardt has spoken many times of the difficulty involved in raising money to get her films made: “I had 10 years from the mid-1990s when I couldn’t get a movie made. It had a lot to do with being a woman. That's definitely a factor in raising money. During that time, it was impossible to get anything going.”

The style of Reichardt’s films also eschews mainstream convention. She favours silence and stillness, minimalism and restraint. It’s all there in Old Joy, a road movie concerned more with the inner life of its characters than it is with adventure. Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham) are estranged buddies who attempt to reconnect on a camping trip in Oregon's Cascade Mountains. We don’t know the cause of their alienation, but each is moving in a different direction – Mark, settled down, is about to become a father; Kurt, still a rootless hippie.

Old Joy is a melancholy film. Both men feel alienated and yearn for something more but struggle to express it. Long sequences follow Mark and Kurt as they avoid talk and hike in silence; the beauty of the landscape – its wind, water and birdsong – tempers their sadness. Reichardt’s view of nature is also unconventional. She doesn’t romanticise it or present it as something to be tamed. The wide-open spaces in Old Joy are a way into the more intimate vistas of Mark and Kurt’s experience.

Since Old Joy, Reichardt’s films have been almost exclusively focused on the lives of women. Wendy and Lucy, the first of three collaborations with Michelle Williams, is perhaps her simplest narrative. Wendy Carroll drifts from Indiana to Alaska with her dog Lucy in tow (Reichardt’s actual dog Lucy), hoping to find work at a fish cannery. Things go wrong quickly. Her car breaks down in a moldy Oregon town and she can’t afford to fix it. When Lucy goes missing, Wendy is set further adrift. Why is Wendy so far from home? We sense she’s running from something; she hopes she’ll be “needed” in Alaska. But we don’t get a lot of information about her beyond what we learn in this economical 80-minute film.

A common refrain about Reichardt’s films is that “nothing happens.” But as Wendy and Lucy makes clear, what happens – in relation to plot – isn’t the main event. Reichardt’s films gather meaning from the opposite of conventional, masculine definitions of action – from what we don’t see and from what remains unspoken.

Meek’s Cutoff is also a film of gaps and omissions. Its opening 10 minutes are dialogue free, and much of the film is made of long, silent takes. Based on the true story of an ill-fated wagon train on the Oregon Trail in 1845, Reichardt’s revisionist, feminist Western looks at three couples, outsiders being led into the wilderness by their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Meek insists, “We’re not lost, we’re just finding our way.” But his isn’t the voice of authority in this tale.

That voice belongs to the women – Emily (Michelle Williams), Glory (Shirley Henderson), and Millie (Zoe Kazan) – who understand, before their husbands, that they are being led astray. Reichardt shot Meek’s Cutoff in the 4:3 aspect ratio, creating a tighter frame, not the widescreen panorama (16:9) traditionally associated with the Western. This narrowing of the screen space also enables Reichardt to narrow her narrative focus.

While women are usually marginalised in Westerns, Reichardt makes their story central. Her camera stays with them as they try to hear what their husbands are discussing. She patiently films the women going about their work, collecting water and preparing food, knowing that without these basic survival skills the wagon train won’t move. Emily is the only character smart and brave enough to trust the captured Native American to lead them to water.

As water runs out, the pioneers’ despair increases, and the austere yellow landscape becomes more dangerous. But if most American films scream for attention, even at these uneasy moments, Reichardt’s film whispers. Her camera is there to observe human nature – it never intrudes. This too is a significant element of her feminist aesthetic.

Certain Women is a masterwork of restraint. Based on short stories by Maile Meloy, Reichardt’s female-focused triptych is connected by failed communications – yearnings to confess, alongside the fear of doing so. Laura (Laura Dern), Gina (Michelle Williams), and the unnamed lonely rancher of the final story (Lily Gladstone), are outsiders, in part because they are alienated by a world where they fight to be heard and taken seriously. As Laura explains, “it would be so restful” not to have to.

Reichardt captures the isolation and emptiness of the Montana landscape. But ultimately, Certain Women’s most moving landscape is each woman’s face. Reichardt lingers on Laura as she drives, listening to the ramblings of her disgruntled client sitting next to her; and on Gina, as she struggles to be understood by the old man whose sandstone she wants to buy. But it’s Lily Gladstone’s lonely rancher whose face lingers most.

Certain Women’s stories don’t have easy conclusions. In a Reichardt film, we must content ourselves with ambiguity, with not getting all the answers. The answers here are not the story. In this way Certain Women, like all Reichardt’s films, is explicitly feminist – it celebrates openness and rejects the masculine tendency to lock meaning down.

Reichardt’s films are a necessary tonic to our modern preoccupation with always being switched on. As Kurt notes on the way into the forest in Old Joy, “You can’t get real quiet anymore.” Reichardt’s films observe these quiet moments. They contain mysteries. She gives us space to breathe and think and feel. That’s a rare gift.

Certain Women: Kelly Reichardt's America screens from 21 - 29 April