Kelly Reichardt is a good example of an indie filmmaker who seems to be edging towards wider recognition (at least where film critics are concerned.) Her films such as Wendy & Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, and Old Joy often receive critical acclaim and are frequently part of the film festival circuit.
Reichardt grew up in Miami, Florida, about as different a landscape as you can get from the lush flora and fauna of Oregon, where many of her films are set. She developed an interest in photography from an early age.
After attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Reichardt’s debut film River of Grass premiered in 1994. It was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards and won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
Reichardt isn’t comfortable with the idea of success, despite multiple appearances at various film festivals and many of her films receiving critical accolades. She still relies on her job teaching at Bard for a steady income. In an interview with The Guardian, she talks about how after River of Grass she couldn’t get anything 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.”
In an interview with Gus Van Sant for BOMB Magazine, Reichardt talks about what happened in the 12 years between making River of Grass and Old Joy.
“I had a feature in development that never happened. I got really disillusioned by feature filmmaking. Eventually I started teaching. I realized I really liked it. It gave me structure and a means of support and a way to keep thinking about film. Teaching is great because so much of filmmaking is indulgent and teaching totally pulls you out of yourself,” Reichardt said.
Reichardt began her collaboration with Jon Raymond and in 2006 she directed Old Joy, based on one of his short stories. She and Raymond adapted another short story to make Wendy and Lucy.
Night Moves, Reichardt’s most recent feature, was in the line up at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. Similar to her other films, it’s set in the wide open spaces of Oregon, focusing on eco-terrorists. Contrast to the lush landscape, the characters in the film are drawn sparsely and despite the environmental focus, the film is hardly political. The motives for blowing up the damn are never clear. We only have a vague knowledge of what Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Elle Fanning) do. Josh is part of a farming co-op and Dena works in a New Age spa. They aren’t part of a larger collective and the third member, Josh’s friend, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) seems even more removed from society, living a Thoreau-esque lifestyle out in the woods close to the dam.
In the first half of the film, the focus is on the plan: to blow up a local dam. Tension and suspense are easily generated by their preparation: first, Josh and Dena pose as a couple and buy a boat. Then, once they meet up with Harmon, they have to procure a large amount of toxic fertilizer needed to blow up the dam. Once they are at the local park surrounding the dam, they have to avert friendly fisherman and campers so as not to expose their identities to those who might later single them out as suspicious.
However, with so much build up to the dam plot, it’s expected to be more of an event. But in quiet films like Reichardt’s, all we get are the stony gazes of the trio as they speed away from the scene of the crime.
The second half of the film is still quiet, but quiet in a different, eerie way. It is the silent and stifled sounds of two of the trio unraveling over the aftereffects of their act of eco-terrorism.
“I remember when I was first trying to make Night Moves, I was working at it for a year and it just wasn’t happening,” she recalls. “I’m 49 years old and I’ve gone out to Oregon and in the course of eight months I stayed in 21 different places. And I thought: Jesus, I’m nearly 50 and here I am still couch-hopping. I’m so pathetic; this is such a pitiful existence. I’ve finally outdone the Kurt character in Old Joy,” she told The Guardian.
Despite her struggles, Reichardt continues making films. Her next, Certain Women, is based on Maile Meloy’s 2009 collection of short stories, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. Reichardt seems content with her work and her teaching job and tends to shy away from the idea that the frequent occurrence of her films in the festival circuit equates to success.