Kelly Reichardt has achieved something that the characters in her films generally do not: she has arrived. The fiercely independent American director, whose pictures often turn on the ambiguity and inconclusive dread of journeys, is the subject of a retrospective season at Melbourne's Australian Centre for the Moving Image that rightly recognises her small but vital body of work. The program, which begins on Thursday 2 June and runs for several weeks, mirrors the growing acclaim for Reichardt, who has become a noted filmmaker even as she's strived to maintain the freedom that often proves elusive to her female characters.
Reichardt's profile has blossomed thanks to her last two features, 2008's Wendy and Lucy and 2010's Meek's Cutoff. Both films, which feature the exceptional Michelle Williams in roles that strip away the fragile mystery she often provides other directors with in favour of an unvarnished grit and emotional honesty, are about people increasingly desperate to complete a journey even as it becomes an existential trial. The setting is nominally the same, the state of Oregon, but the landscape and timeframe are radical opposites: the contemporary Wendy and Lucy unfolds amidst the frayed edges of small town America, whilst Meek's Cutoff takes place in the Oregon High Desert during 1845, as a group of settlers grow increasingly worried about their circumstances.
The ACMI program also includes the 46-year-old's two earlier features, 1993's River of Grass and 2006's Old Joy, as well as a short work, 1999's Ode, that punctuates the great gap between her early films, when Reichardt was still getting to grips with both her technique and themes, and finding the means to put them into practice.
The details of work, the small skilled rituals of chores and tasks, are a recurring element in Reichardt's latter films. They reflect not only the hand-made nature of Reichardt's work – the title card in Meek's Cutoff is hand embroided, for example – but also the realities of day to day living, especially for women. In Wendy and Lucy Michelle Williams' Wendy keeps a carefully notated list of her money and expenses as she heads towards Alaska in search of employment with only her beloved dog, Lucy, for companionship, and as her travails mount – broken down car, shoplifting fine – the amount recedes alongside her quiet fortitude.
In Meek's Cutoff, which focuses on three wagons heading for greener pastures, it is the wives who rise first, huddled around a tiny fire each starts to begin the day's chores. It is the husbands who confer with their garrulous, possibly unprofessional guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), so Williams' flinty Emily Tetherow must wait until she converses in private with her husband, Soloman (Will Patton), to make her point. The film is a stripped down western, with no use for the stark beauty of the landscape and little interest in the western mythology. The swaggering Meek may look the part, but the west is as much won by Williams and her fellow publicly silent pioneers in bonnets, played by Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson.
“Women are usually the objects. But I always wondered what, say, John Wayne in The Searchers must have looked like to the woman cooking his stew,” Reichardt recently explained to The Guardian, having used the journals of women who made the perilous journey as a means of research. “When you read these accounts you see just how much the traditional male viewpoint diminishes our sense of history. I wanted to give a different view of the west from the usual series of masculine encounters and battles of strength, and to present this idea of going west as just a trance of walking.”
The filmmaker grew up in Florida, where both her parents, who separated during her childhood, were involved in law enforcement. Her mother was an investigator, while her father photographed crime scenes. It was with his work camera that Reichardt first began to capture images, and there's a nod to her father's trade in several of the supporting characters in the Florida set River of Grass having the same line of trade.
Reichardt's subsequent films, which are also crucially informed by the Portland writer John Raymond, whose short story she adapted for Old Joy before he wrote the subsequent projects for her, equally reflect her own circumstances. There was a time, after River of Grass, when she was at the intersection of commercial and independent filmmaking, but it proved to be a frustrating and unproductive span of years. Nowadays she makes her living teaching (as the Visiting Assistant Professor of Film and Electronic Arts at Bard College), and shoots on comparatively small budgets to retain control.
“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,” Reichardt told The Guardian. “The more money you take, the more hands there are in the pie. Right now, there's no one telling me what to do. I can edit on my own schedule. No one gives me notes outside the same friends who I've been showing my films to since I started.”
Like Debra Granik (Winter's Bone) and Kimberley Peirce (Boys Don't Cry), she uses the insular struggles of her female protagonists to illuminate the wider world. Meek's Cutoff is at once a confined tale where the dozen or so people present are threatened by the ground they can barely traverse, but it's also worth considering as an allegory for recent American history with a folksy but unqualified authority figure leading citizens astray.
What's definite is that when you put Reichardt's work together it can be appreciated as a whole, not only for the thematic similarities, but also for how she's evolved as a filmmaker; Jeff Grace's allusive soundtrack for Meek's Cutoff would never have fit with her earlier work. So it's an incomplete journey, naturally, but a rewarding one.
Focus on Kelly Reichardt runs at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image from Thursday 2 to Sunday 19 June. More information can be found here.