After learning that Kelly Reichardt is the favorite filmmaker of Bong Joon Ho - the mastermind behind 2019's greatest film, Parasite - I admittedly went into this bracket with extremely high expectations.
When Bong Joon Ho won the coveted Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for his film Parasite, one person’s vote on the jury held special meaning for him: that of the director Kelly Reichardt. A pillar of American independent cinema, Reichardt favors quiet, minimalistic storytelling, often focused on the margins of society. As she once put it, “My films are just glimpses of people passing through.” Bong has spoken frequently of his appreciation for her work; he called the opening shot of her 2008 film, Wendy and Lucy, “one of the most beautiful opening scenes in the history of the movies.” - David Sims, The Guardian
And if you are a fan of either, I strongly recommend reading this adorable interview in its entirety here. But first, a little about Kelly...
Born in 1960's Miami, Reichardt developed a love of photography from an early age. She went on to earn her MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and made her directorial debut in 1994 with the film River of Grass. But it would take over a decade before she started making feature films regularly.
"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, so I just said, ‘Fuck you!’ and did Super 8 shorts instead." - The Guardian
She's known for finding her locations first, and her story second, and has paved the way for what critics call "neo-neo-realism." Her dialogue is sparse, her plots simple, and her cinematography epic. The script days (the amount of time that passes in the film) are almost always less than a week; her films are windows into lives of simple people, and it's a small but richly textured capsule.
River of Grass (1994)
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Written by: Kelly Reichardt & Jesse Hartman
Starring: Lisa Donaldson, Larry Fessenden
IMDB Synopsis: Cozy, a dissatisfied housewife, meets Lee at a bar. A drink turns into a home break-in, and a gun shot sends them on the run together, thinking they've committed murder.
I had originally put First Cow down as one of the Reichardt films for this bracket, but since it's not available yet (and who knows if/when movie theaters will be operational again) I decided to look for another that was easier to find on a streaming service. I stumbled upon River of Grass and instantly remembered seeing the move trailer about 4 years ago. It had been re-released in 2016 after the film's distributor, Oscilloscope Laboratories, launched a Kickstarter in order to digitally restore the film, and made it's way around the Sundance Film Festival again, 22 years after it's original debut.
It looked grainy and weird and effortlessly cool, giving me the same kind of vibes I got from Ghost World and Reality Bites. It appeared to pay homage to an era without tokenizing it; intentional without trying too hard.
“A road movie without the road, a love story without the love, and a crime story without the crime.”— Kelly Reichardt
The graphic novel-based Ghost World is in a league of its own, however; River of Grass feels more like it was inspired by a shoebox full of vintage photographs and postcards, found in the sticky attic of a distant relative: the the visual journey is exceptionally well-curated but the narrative thread is sparse, but the two roads never really merge. At times it almost felt more like one of Lana Del Rey's more experimental music videos than a feature film - not a bad thing, but, you know... not what I was expecting.
“Lee and I had crossed that straight line that dad called the law, and I could feel the butterflies in my stomach as I tumbled deeper into a life of crime. After all, murder was thicker than marriage, and Lee and I were now bound by the life we took.”
I wish I'd known a bit more about her filmmaking before I'd walked into these, because I feel like I would've appreciated her approach a bit more. The trailers do make it look like they'll be much faster-paced - and that's not to say I have the attention span of Michael Bay fan - but when you set up a premise that echoes Natural Born Killers and True Romance, one can't help but anticipate a little more action.
That being said, I cannot emphasize enough how fucking cool the whole movie looked. The heavy filmic grain and square screen easily could've come across as pretentious, but instead it was nostalgic; it made me feel like I was watching a vintage slideshow, or going through my grandmother's scrapbook.
“I stood near the water thinking about different things, and sometimes catching a glimpse of my life as if I was thumbing through an old photo album.”
Meek's Cutoff (2010)
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Written by: Jonathan Raymond
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson
IMDB Synopsis: Settlers traveling through the Oregon desert in 1845 find themselves stranded in harsh conditions.
If River of Grass was like going through the polaroid section of an antique store, watching this movie was kind of like walking through a museum: it was undeniably beautiful, intensely quiet, and I enjoyed it a lot less than I thought I would. I wanted to like it. I know all the cool kids like it. But my god, it was boring! There! I said it!
I could deal with the little-to-no-dialogue. I figured out pretty quickly that this wasn't a plot-driven film, and I was okay with that. I appreciated that the landscape was, essentially, the main character. I accepted that this was an "about the journey not the destination" kind of show. But the silence. The aching, never-ending silence. And I'm not an idiot, I KNOW that was intentional. You really fucking feel like you are in the middle of goddamn nowhere, and it's the 1800s, and when the sun sets it is dark AF. ...But also like it's a movie, and we will forgive you if you light your actors so we can see them? Literally half this movie is in the actual DARK because Reichardt refused to use anything more than an actual sad and tiny campfire to illuminate her actor's faces when anything was filmed at night. Sure, it was authentic... but was it worth it? Seriously, this is what it looked like:
You're supposed to feel overwhelmed by the silence, but I have to wonder why. I felt a kinship between Reichardt's eye and that of Jane Campion, particularly The Piano (I agonized over including Campion in this bracket, but since The Piano is one of my top 10 favorite movies of all time I felt it would be unfair; plus I intentionally wanted to focus on directors with less accolades). Honestly, one of the reasons that film is in my top 10 is because of the score - it's extraordinary, and one of my favorite classical music pieces to listen to. It shapes the story, it becomes as much of a character as Reichardt's desolate wasteland does - but it fills a space, rather than carving out one. It elevates the film from a silent pseudo-documentary to an artistic masterpiece; it gives it an edge of magic that Meek's Cutoff could've benefited from tremendously.
I said that this wasn't a plot-driven film, but you definitely couldn't call it a character-driven story either. If I were to have you guess which character I was thinking of and I wasn't allowed to describe their outfits or the actor who plays them, you would have no idea who was who (except for Meeky McBeardy Face and The Native American). Pink Dress & White Bonnet Girl? Chick who played Moaning Myrtle in Harry Potter? That girl who's dating the big brother from Little Miss Sunshine in real life? And I literally have no idea who any of their husbands are (except for Dano) because they all look exactly the same and have not one characteristic distinction between them.
I'm learning that when it comes to movies, I like to feel a sense of escapism - not necessarily fantasy, but I like to feel one degree above real life. I like beauty. I like fully developed, unique, weird characters with rich backstories and detailed idiosyncrasies. I like wide ranges of emotion, even if that emotion is boredom or desperation or restlessness. I don't like when movies explicitly tell you what to feel and when to feel it, but I also don't like feeling like the movie I'm watching is hard work. And Meek's Cutoff most certainly was.
And the winner is...
I'm frustrated by this idea that "good films" have to be exhausting and take so much effort to watch. Imagine if we held the same standards to food: "You can tell this was a good steak because it was as bleak and godless as the Oregon Trail; the salad took extreme concentration to digest; the soufflé offered no conclusion, but merely suggested a quiet murmur of what dessert could be."
I know it's not a perfect analogy. But at the end of the day, I want my movies to be a little, well - yummy. River of Grass was hardly delicious, but it was just weird enough to be memorable, and it had it's tasty moments.