FILM Kelly Reichardt wrote and directed a pair of arresting short features in the 1990s — River of Grass (1993) and Ode (1999) — but it was the two poignant recalibrations of the road movie she made during the George W. Bush years that put her on the map. With so much American independent cinema gone upwardly mobile, Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) were films that dug back in to that minor place that gives the 1970s cinema of Monte Hellman (1971's Two-Lane Blacktop), Bob Rafelson (1970's Five Easy Pieces), Barbara Loden (1970's Wanda), and Eagle Pennell (1978's The Whole Shootin' Match) its plaintive appeal. Reichardt's characters (the recent ones all developed with the help of Portland, Ore., author Jon Raymond) are side-winding, shipwrecked, or otherwise in limbo. The films do not engineer uplift, but instead reserve empathy for melancholy souls who, for one reason or another, feel themselves cut off.
Some of the elements of Reichardt's "naturalism" include her subtle direction of actors (an emphasis on gesture and rhythm); her deceptively unhurried pacing which, as in the best short stories, reveals the continuity of life in its interruptions; her sensitivity to the emotional registry of politics; and the strong regional accents of all her films. If you've seen the two earlier movies, you know that Reichardt has a strong feeling for the southeast's glades, but she's since come to be associated with Oregon's overcast skies (her new film, Meek's Cutoff, was shot upon the state's hardscrabble plains). Reichardt could probably make a good picture in any out-of-the-way place — a lot of America, actually.
Reichardt's films unfold as ballads: a cast of two, with occasional walk-ons, observed from a near distance. The incremental addition of events anticipates heartbreak or worse, with context and emphasis left between the lines. Always, we find ourselves in an America where it's hard to escape and easy to get lost. However the meaning of "escape" and "getting lost" might vary, the characters emerge similarly bruised: walking the strip, stuck in traffic, riding a freight train, or back at home without consolation. Many of Reichardt's memorable scenes — and there are already many — might have been torn from Robert Frank's The Americans.
Like all good ballads, the stories strike us as being emblematic. In interviews, Reichardt has made it clear that she intends her films to remind us of the times, whether evoking the left's ineffectual ties in Old Joy or the lack of a public sphere in Wendy and Lucy. As with her '70s forerunners, the films invite a pastoral daydream (renewal in the wilderness or out on the road) only to have it dissipate in responsibility or a dead end. Something Cozy (Lisa Bowman) says in River of Grass hangs over all Reichardt's movies: "It's funny how a person can leave everything she knew behind and still wind up in such a familiar place."