Ranking the Kelly Reichardt Films

Ranking Kelly Reichardt films is an absolutely fool’s errand. Every time I watch one of them I think, “That has got to be one of her better ones.” Anyway, I am a fool, so…


8. River of Grass [1994]

“It’s funny how a person can leave everything behind, and she still can end up in such a familiar place.”

I kind of like the idea of everyone being forced to do their own version of Badlands for their first movie. And while that hacky joke is in fact a hacky joke, there is some truth to that is what is happening here. If anything, thinking about Badlands helps to process how much DNA Reichardt actually shares with Malick.

Reichardt general focuses less on plot and much more on mood. The centers of her films are usually characters who are quite lost and reflect the sad state of humanity and the broad human condition. It was a fascinating exercise to go back and watch this with more knowledge in which to contextualize her work.


7. Wendy & Lucy [2008]

“It’s all fixed.”

What options do people have? How are they supposed to “pull themselves up”? What jobs are there for them? What homes are they supposed to get? Reichardt followed up Old Joy by exploring the life of another person more obviously on the bottom than the men of that film. Wendy is homeless and jobless. Her car is broken down. She just got arrested for petty theft and now her dog is missing. While the Old Joy characters have dim prospects for their future, Wendy & Lucy explores how much grimmer it can get. While the characters from Old Joy are taking time to find some pleasure in their lives, this film shows how bleak your options for joy can be when you have nothing. It just takes one bad for many of our lives to completely fall apart, and in this country, it is almost impossible to dig yourself out of that hole.


6. Meek’s Cutoff [2010]

“It’s nothing. You cannot imagine the things we’ve done. The cities we’ve built.”

When I watch this film, I am struck by how much it encapsulates a fundamental part of the history of this land since the Western European conquest. White people showed up and continuously found themselves in situations where – due to their own actions and greed – they were in various levels of general danger and conflict with the land’s indigenous people. The stories always get told from the white perspective which logically leads to dramatic situations where they have to either kill indigenous people or risk their own violent demise. This dynamic speaks to the false choices we worry about. “Do we kill the indigenous person or not?” Never asking ourselves why are we in this situation to begin with? How did we get that we feel we need to make this choice? How are we the protagonist? Is there a way to break the cycle? The film dares to ask those questions.


5. Showing Up [2022]

Is there any way to be truly free in this country? How are you impacted by claiming power in a country that pits the powerful vs. powerless at all times? Reichardt explores questions like these in her latest entry of exploring how this stupid motherfucking country just is determined to stomp on as many lives as possible.

After visiting the past with First Cow, Reichardt jumps back to the present to directly look at what it feels like to be an artist in this society. She deftly does this by comparing the lives of old college friends, Michelle Williams and Hong Chau. Chau bought a property and became Williams’ landlord. They both have continued to pursue their artistic crafts ever since. While neither have “made” it in any real sense, you get to see the differences in their success and the different reasons that brought them to where they were.

What drove Chau to be more economically ambitious and successful than Williams? Chau conveys that incredibly subtle (yet incredibly true-to-life) self-involvement that clearly dictates so much of her actions. Williams meanwhile clearly is much less outspoken and direct about her needs and prioritizes them less. A lesser film would make clean judgements about those differences but Showing Up recognizes how knotty life is too much to be so reductive.

The film shows the positive effects on Chau’s life and questions how much anyone is benefitting from Williams’ lack of selfishness. It is cruel that Chau claiming power over her friend benefits her but what are the alternatives for anyone trying to find the time and space to make art? If Michelle Williams’ life is the other perceived option, how can we expect Hong Chau to choose that path for herself?

While Michelle Williams is as reliable as it gets (especially when working with Reichardt), Hong Chau finally gets to show off her considerable talents in a work worthy of them. A great film.


4. First Cow [2019]

“History isn’t here yet. It’s coming, but we got here early this time. Maybe this time we can be ready for it. We can take it on our own terms.”

Cookie and King-Lu, as the latter repeatedly points out, are two men close to the bottom of the ladder in this land. They have to make their own way. But in this stolen land run by thieves and pirates, only a precious few get to exist at the top and play by their own rules. When those at the bottom, such as Cookie and King-Lu, attempt play by the ruler’s rules, the system responds with the full force required to wipe them off the face of the earth. Or in this, bury them for over a century. Much like Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt is able to uncover some essential truths about what it means to both merely exist in this land and also what happens when you forget your place and try move up in the world.


3. Night Moves [2013]

“I’m not interested in statements, I’m interested in results.”

All of Kelly Reichardt’s films start from the same place: it is absolutely frightening how fucked up it is to exist and try to make your way in this country. Her characters then mostly go off in two broad directions. The characters try to buy into the world on its terms (and then pay dearly in some way) or their characters just sort of continue to exist at the bottom of the ladder, as they seem to be at a loss for what to do.

The main characters of Night Moves chose the third way. They chose to do something about the conditions of the world. They chose to try to do something right to make the world a little less wrong. But can do you do anything actually meaningful? By taking radical direct action, will we be able to make things actually better and a little less wrong? Are we prepared to take responsibility for the costs of what it takes to fight back? Reichardt explores theses questions and does not pretend to be certain about the answers. But they are questions we must grapple with as we continuously get pushed to the edge of the cliff and have to decide what to do next.


2. Old Joy [2006]

“We’re both so stretched thin with work it’s hard to imagine, but it will have to work itself out.”

Reichardt’s second film makes for a fascinating companion piece to her later First Cow. There is the surface level similarity of course of both films being centered around two dudes being dudes. The more interesting connection between the films though is revealed in their differences. If First Cow is a story of two men stuck at the bottom trying to make their way to the top, Old Joy is about two men resisting that urge and struggling to find peace at the bottom. As the leftwing talk radio hammers home in the first third of the film, we are all on our own and the institutions will not save us. We have to make our own way somehow. What does that way look like? Can we find joy in our adult lives in a society designed to grind us to dust? Or will that joy merely turn into sorrow?


1. Certain Women [2016]

In perhaps Reichardt’s greatest accomplishment as a director, she loosely interweaves the stories of four women in Montana who were all simultaneously leading very different lives but also were confronted by similar obstacles that epitomize the broad female experience in the United States. All four women sense something terribly wrong and are rebelling or taking control of their destinies in various ways. There is a real cruel reality about the everyday experience of women is captured here. They are not heard. Their needs are ignored. They are disposed of callously. They get locked into bad or wrong relationships. They blindly seek to move up and aim higher in this capitalist society without truly figuring out what they want or what is good for them. They also just want to love and feel love because in Reichardt’s films women are never charity cases to be pitied. They are in all ways human.


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