“People Passing Through”: Kelly Reichardt’s Windows into the Lives of Wanderers

by Sage Cruser


You should watch Kelly Reichardt’s movies! While she has directed multiple shorts, I’m focusing this article on her features:

River of Grass (1994)

Old Joy (2006)

Wendy and Lucy (2008)

Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

Night Moves (2013)

Certain Women (2016)

First Cow (2020)


Her movies are character-focused, observant, often categorized as Westerns but are so much more than that limiting label, and have mostly been made and set in my home state of Oregon. They are contemplative, quiet stories that deserve contemplative, quiet intakes (she has been quoted as saying that “[d]ialogue is the most dispensable part of a film”), and it’s not a Reichardt tale without an open ending that leaves you with questions.

Her long road trips across the country have informed her thoughtful storytelling; like many of her characters, she has been known to wander west and ruminate. She’s made lots of paved journeys from New York, where she lives and teaches, to Oregon and other parts of the Pacific Northwest, where she spends most of her movie-making time. On the road, she has said, “You run into things you didn’t expect, or solve pieces of the puzzle. If nothing else, it takes you away from your life, and your mind is free to think about your story.”

Even though there are lots of people who have never heard of her, her movies are starting to become more widely known and consumed. And while she probably could at this point, she’s not interested in taking Hollywood by storm or doing massive big-budget projects, and she has asserted that no one would call her up for anything like that anyway. When it comes to the promotional and charismatic elements of getting movies made and distributed, she’s not so big on all that either, often describing herself as scrappy.” My favorite interview quote from her articulates her mindset regarding her position within the film industry, and captures a lot of why I think she’s great:

“Someone told me once that I can’t be an underdog forever, and I take that as a challenge.”

I don’t think I’ll have a difficult time convincing you to watch the movies that make Parasite director Bong Joon Ho jealous. Here we go.


Lisa Bowman in River of Grass

River of Grass (1994) 

Cozy (Lisa Bowman), a woman bored with her life in Miami as a wife and mother, meets Lee (Larry Fessenden) at a bar one night. They sneak into a backyard to use the pool. The two are play-aiming a gun Lee has when it goes off and they think they’ve killed someone, so they hit the road with the intent to skip town.

What gets me most about River of Grass is how well it captures loneliness. During Cozy’s narration in the beginning, she says:

“It’s funny how a single day could drag and drag, while entire years just flew by in a flash. Once, I calculated how many hours old I was, and then estimated how many more hours there were to go. On another day, I made a list of every person I had ever known… Then I wondered if there was any other person on this planet as lonely as me.”

This is Reichardt’s first feature and her only one to date that’s set in her home state of Florida. The influence of her upbringing as the daughter of two cops is apparent, and the role the setting plays is strong, so when I watch it I feel like I’m getting a peek into her core and where she comes from. Todd Haynes, a filmmaker and friend of Reichardt’s, interviewed her for BOMB Magazine in 1995, and it’s fun to read some of what was going on with her so early in her filmmaking pursuits. In the interview, she talked about identifying with Cozy, the difficulties of getting a movie made when the cops were trying to arrest her star every day, and her next project idea.

Reichardt has expressed less than fond feelings toward where she grew up, calling it a cultural void and pretty bad,” and yet she felt enough kinship to the Keys to set her first feature there. Moving forward, she has discussed wanting to make movies about things she didn’t know, places she hadn’t been. She wanted to discover. Given that she took a 10+ year hiatus from feature filmmaking after River of Grass was released and every feature since her return has taken place on the other side of the country—Oregon and Montana—she has clearly followed that desire. Still, for me, there’s no denying the specialness of this introductory story set in the place she left behind.


Will Oldham, Daniel London, and Lucy in Old Joy

Old Joy (2006) 

After not having seen each other for a while, old friends Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), along with Mark’s dog Lucy, go on a hiking/camping trip to Bagby Hot Springs, a destination in the wooded foothills of the Cascades, southeast of Portland, Oregon. Old Joy is based on the short story of the same name by Oregon author Jon Raymond, who, beginning here, becomes Reichardt’s frequent collaborator.

There are political undertones throughout, but the friendship between the two men is the heart of the movie. It’s ambiguously erotic at times, which contributes to the complexity of the relationship. Reichardt had some things to say about Old Joy’s “meaning” in a 2006 interview with Filmmaker Magazine, including having “had done a lot of work in the filmmaking to not nail things down, to leave a certain openness and space for people to form their own interpretations and their own experiences.”

The deep greens of the forest, the solitude of the hiking path, the trickle of hot water from the springs… it all contributes to the quiet and peaceful environment that helps facilitate the two men getting to know each other again. At one point, Kurt is talking up the springs to Mark on their drive up, and says:

“Totally private, no one around. And most of all, it has this otherworldly peacefulness about it. You can really… think… You can’t get real quiet anymore.”

Reichardt loves quiet. One of my favorite captured moments of hers, detailed in a 2016 New York Times article, was when she was doing sound editing for Certain Women. After not being able to get a particular clip quiet enough to suit her liking, “Reichardt looked despondent. In a signal of forfeit, she sighed, shrugged and said, ‘Maybe the world is just too loud.’”


Michelle Williams and Lucy in Wendy and Lucy

Wendy and Lucy (2008)

Wendy and Lucy follows Wendy Carrol (Michelle Williams), a woman on her way from Indiana to Alaska looking for work. Low on cash but just barely scraping by from place to place, she’s traveling in her car/shelter with her dog, Lucy, when they break down near Portland, Oregon. While there, Wendy copes with losses and experiences that threaten to break her. Conceived of just after Hurricane Katrina and released during the Great Recession, the fabric of the story is informed by these contexts.

While the strong bond between Wendy and Lucy is clearly important and central, what stands out to me more throughout the movie is what we’re willing to do for each other. Not just what Wendy is willing to do for Lucy, which is a lot, but also what we’re willing to do for other people in need—those we don’t even know; what we’ll do to help when there’s nothing in it for us but the simple act of doing something kind.

Lucy was Reichardt’s dog—the same dog in Old Joy—and they did a lot of road traveling and location scouting together. Jon Raymond wrote the short story “Train Choir,” from which Wendy and Lucy was adapted, as a result of his conversations with Reichardt while they were working on an idea for another movie project together, maybe something that could have Lucy written in…

In a 2008 Slant interview, Reichardt spoke about periods in her life when she’d been financially broke like Wendy, but was fortunate enough to have a network of friends that made it so she never went hungry or without shelter. She also never considered herself a “dog person,” but got “hung up” on Lucy when she found her and they became inseparable. On multiple occasions, Reichardt has mentioned the fact that Lucy just couldn’t be left alone without destroying everything,” so she got worked into productions.


Michelle Williams and Shirley Henderson in Meek’s Cutoff

Meek’s Cutoff (2010) 

Lost white settlers make their way through the Oregon desert of 1845 in an attempt to reach the Willamette Valley. Reichardt bucks the widescreen typically associated with Westerns, instead opting for a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, which creates a tight, trapped feel. With heavy emphasis on daily labor, boredom, and the dire need for water, there’s nothing but realism here, and you’re sure to get lost in the endlessness of it all too. Your throat will feel dry and the sound of squeaky wagon wheels will be playing in your head long after you return to this century. And in true Reichardt fashion, the ending leaves us with more questions than answers, refusing to give us a tidy resolution, which is a significant element of the tale’s excellence.

In a 2011 NPR interview with Reichardt on Meek’s Cutoff, she said she based a lot of the movie on journals from the time, specifically the journals of women settlers going west, and wanted to explore what she refers to as “elaborated time”:

“This whole idea of space and, um, time is just completely different, and there’s this sort of trance-like quality about the journey that I haven’t really experienced in tales of going west. And so I wanted to investigate that and try to use this more elaborated time… to see if you, you know, if you could get tension by basically not delivering the heightened moment…”

Meek’s is my overall favorite of the bunch. I wrote a short paragraph on it for Scarecrow Video’s Favorites of the 2010s (#66), and Brett Wright recently published an exceptionally compelling analysis of it for Split Tooth Media’s Best of the 2010s film series. Wright deftly observes:

“We are placed in a position to shift our perception from following a group of settlers with an objective and a destination, to recognizing the intricacies and conflicts of their relationships to each other and their new environment. Reichardt challenges us to stick with the opaqueness, offering an experience that is not merely subversive but truly radical. She shows a struggle for progress not as an issue of lacking knowledge but as an inability to recognize when to shed our understanding to best seek the path forward. Kelly Reichardt takes us to the edge of certainty, leading us toward uncharted territory — that is, if we are willing to follow her.”

Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg, and Peter Sarsgaard in Night Moves

Night Moves (2013)

Three Oregon environmental activists (played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard) plot to blow up a dam. The fallout is more severe than they anticipated.

Night Moves doesn’t tell you what to think or how to feel; it’s not trying to preach to you. It presents you with the actions of the characters and lets it all fester, leaving you with your thoughts, an experience which for me turned out to be quite unsettling and revealing. Again, there is no clean wrap-up. Reichardt addressed her lack of firm conclusions in a 2014 interview with The Guardian:

“‘Maybe I’m suspicious of absolutes,’ she concedes. ‘I mean, yes, there is something satisfying about watching an old film when the music rises up and the words come at you – The End. But it would seem absurd to do that at the end of one of my films. It would just make them feel lopsided, because they’re all so short, they cover so little time. We don’t know where these people were before. We spent a week with them and then on they went. My films are just glimpses of people passing through.’”

A big reason why I think this works so well comes down to what’s at the core of all of Reichardt’s movies: they’re character stories above all else. In another 2014 interview she did on Night Moves, she said, “Well, it’s not a morality play, it really is a character film. They happen to be political people,” and also stated, “My films are character films, they’re not message films.”


Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg, and Peter Sarsgaard in Night Moves

Certain Women (2016)

Bilge Ebiri perfectly described Certain Women for The Village Voice in 2017: “Based on short stories by Maile Meloy, it tells the loosely connected tales of three Montana women — a lawyer, a wife, and a rancher — at what might be key turning points in their lives. But sometimes the significance of a moment isn’t revealed until after the fact; so often, we’re just watching these women be. Through her graceful but straightforward direction, Reichardt manages to convey the everyday nature of the events depicted, while also hinting at the mystery beneath them.”

My favorite Reichardt character explorations take place in Certain Women. While I’m especially a fan of Lily Gladstone’s affecting and emotionally anchoring performance as the rancher, Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kristen Stewart also bring astonishing power to their quiet characters. Another mark of Reichardt movies is apparent here with the landscape playing a character role: frigid, wide open and beautiful, emphasizing the isolation of each human character at times and highlighting the warmth of their connections at other times. The cold vastness also serves to slow everything down, keeping a measured pace without sacrificing the life in the stories.

This slowness gives me an opportunity to really sit with the characters and process what they’re going through and what I’m going through in response. In a 2017 interview with The Guardian, Reichardt spoke about her interest in keeping things slower:

“It all just seems everything is getting faster. Faster, faster, faster – we all want things faster. I guess there is a part of me that likes the pull against that.”

Certain Women is dedicated to Lucy, who is no longer with us.


John Magaro and Evie in First Cow

First Cow (2020)

Reichardt again turns her 4:3 storytelling window to 19th century life in the west, focusing on the first cow in Oregon Territory and a friendship between two men (played by John Magaro and Orion Lee).

In her interview with Vox back in March, Reichardt discussed how class, race, capitalism, labor, language, and food intertwine in her latest movie, as well as the research that went into production and having Evie, the cow she cast as the cow, on set (there was a lot of understandable fuss over the “lovely” bovine). Marketed as a Western for reasons that make sense, I love that Reichardt had this to say when the interviewer asked about which category First Cow falls under: “I actually think this is a heist film! It’s a caper.” But, as usual, the most important thing to her is her characters. In an earlier interview with Vanity Fair, she said: “It’s really a story about friendship… I just try to focus on the characters.” 

I haven’t seen First Cow yet because the launch was limited to select theaters after it finished its festival run, and when the pandemic hit everything shut down, but A24 is planning to do a theater re-launch later this year—fingers crossed. The trailer has me very excited to see it, and critics have been laying on the praise: The Atlantic called it a masterwork,” and The Seattle Times described it as sublime.”

Reichardt has become widely revered as a singular voice in American independent cinema, and there’s no question she’s the real deal. She makes movies to make movies, not for the glory, and it brings me comfort to know that if for some reason producers, distributors, critics and the like suddenly turned their backs on her and pulled a “nah we don’t like you anymore,” that wouldn’t matter. She’d just keep going. In a 2009 interview with Indie Wire, Reichardt said:

“I didn’t find the industry that inviting. So to me it’s just been trying to figure out how to make films outside of it. Do it yourself. By any means necessary. And, you know, it’s nice. It’s been a really good ride… And you just don’t know… Do it until you can’t do it. I’m always prepared that I’ll go back to making smaller films at any given time. In between my [first] two features I was making these sorts of films but on Super 8. And when the well dries up, that’s where I’ll go back.”

Years later, in a 2016 interview with The New York Times, Reichardt recalled being at the Venice Film Festival with her producer for one of her short Super 8 films and not being invited to any of the parties:

“So we sat on the riverbank and watched these parties that were happening on boats. It really was an epiphany. I thought, This is exactly where I want to be: not at the party but on the bank of a river, with my friend, looking on at it.”

I’m not sure if Kelly Reichardt still qualifies as an underdog, but let’s leave her in peace on the riverbank. Forthcoming: her own spot on the shelf in Scarecrow’s directors section.


Post-article note: The devastating reality of our current situation is affecting us all and requires attention. I was fortunate enough to write this article from the safety of my home, but there are many people in our Seattle community and beyond for whom home is not a safe place, especially during this pandemic. If you or anyone you know is being affected by domestic violence or abuse and prefers not to contact the police, please consider utilizing resources provided and recommended by Domestic Abuse Women’s Network (DAWN) and The NW Network. Some of these resources also include help for people who are struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic with things like food, shelter, and other essentials. 


Sage Cruser works at Scarecrow. 

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