MOVIES | Kelly Reichardt’s films, now showing at the Walker, capture the angst of 21st-century America


A filmmaker can perfectly pinpoint the essence of her time. Kelly Reichardt’s three features tell fresh stories that express the economic dislocation, social polarization, and emotional disconnection of 21st-century America. From May 5-14, the Walker Art Center screens Reichardt’s complete works (including short films) and hosts a dialogue with the director.

Although it was made in 1994, Reichardt’s debut feature River of Grass (May 5, 7:30 p.m.) fits the media-saturated, emotionally displaced nature of our times, where the movies one watches shape one’s character as much as the family one comes from. Set in Reichardt’s native Dade County, Florida, the film evokes a faded film noir sensibility. Cozy (Lisa Bowman), a late 20-something who passively drifted into an empty marriage and motherhood, meets aging stoner Lee Ray Harold (Larry Fassenden). They hit the road after a bad moment with a gun and the situation spirals from there. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, since Reichardt’s ability to create suspense followed by the sometimes crazily-unexpected is too wonderful to spoil. Interesting supporting characters are Cozy’s former-jazz-drummer-now-police-detective dad (Dick Russell) and Lee Ray’s constantly remarrying mother—both of whom feel like refugees from a late 1950s and ’60s America of open possibilities that didn’t pan out. Emotionally stunted and adrift, Cozy and Lee Ray might become Bonnie and Clyde—if they could find money to fill the gas tank and get out of town. River of Grass is a kind of send-up of the crime film, using absurdity and dark humor to express a very real angst that envelops much of American life. River of Grass was nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize.

Two male friends on the verge of middle age confront their divergent paths in Old Joy (May 7, 9 p.m., May 14, 7:30 p.m.). Mark (Daniel London), married and about to become a father, goes on a spur-of-the-moment weekend campout with Kurt (Will Oldham, a.k.a. singer-songwriter Bonnie “Prince” Billy), a still-footloose friend. Considering Mark’s upcoming child, Kurt says, “I never got myself into anything I couldn’t get out of.” Kurt could be seen as the aging hippie and Mark as the dutiful grown-up, but both are more complicated than that, and Reichardt quietly reveals the depths of their connection—frayed and fragile as it has become. Mark and Kurt travel to Oregon’s breathtaking Cascade Mountains, a place lush, wild, and almost innocent—except for garbage dumped where they camp. Like the talk radio that’s part of the undercurrent opening and closing their car trip, Old Joy—made in 2006—communicates liberal despair amid the conservative ascendancy of the Bush years. Whether one clings to old high ideals, as Kurt does, or struggles to fashion new, more intimate ones, like Mark, losses are inevitable. The film’s title comes from Kurt’s observation that “sorrow is nothing bur worn-out joy.” The nuanced emotional truth about male friendship here goes light years beyond most “buddy movies.”

Reichardt’s newest film, Wendy and Lucy (May 7, 7:30 p.m. and May 14, 9 p.m.), is being compared to post-WWII European neo-realism and was Film Comment‘s pick of the year in 2008. But the film is steeped in American images, depicting with understated brutality the grinding gears of an economic class system Americans deny exists, so I’m not willing to let some artsy analysis distance viewers from the implications of this film. Wendy (embodied by Michelle Williams, who never misses a note), is a young woman on the road to Alaska to take a job in the canneries. Her companion is her dog Lucy (who also appears in Old Joy). At a time when it’s everyone for themselves and no second chances, it doesn’t take much to fall off a rickety economic ladder: a car breaks down in a dying, small Oregon town, hunger can lead to theft, sleeping outdoors has perils. When Wendy loses Lucy, she finds help from a security guard (Walter Dalton), reminding us that human kindness is a rare and precious currency in hard times. Deceptively simple, Wendy and Lucy has images that resonate with those from the Great Depression, but the questions we are left with are very much for today’s go-go economy gone bust. Is money the only bottom line left? Wendy’s willful spirit leaps forward right up to the end.

On May 12, the Walker presents an evening of Reichardt’s short films (7:30 p.m.). Travis is an abstract “sound poem” depicting a mother reeling from her son’s death in Iraq. Then a Year evokes the razor-sharp pain of lost love. Ode is a film adaption of a novel by Herman Raucher based on the Bobbie Gentry 1967 hit song “Ode to Billy Joe.” Reichardt certainly captures adolescent first love on film—Bobbie Lee’s contortions between desire and danger, Billy Joe’s urgency and anxiety—but a claustrophobic self-consciousness clings to Ode, in stark contrast to the confident vision of Reichardt’s three feature films. Maybe this has to do with working from such second-hand materials as a novel inspired by a pop song. It feels like another filmmaker’s work.

Kelly Reinhardt is a major independent filmmaker; in her work, place is a character as much as people are. In Reinhardt’s films, the landscape tells us something about today’s America, with its uncertain future. She’s taken that “open road” that’s defined America and showed us its detours, dead ends, and dreams that refuse to die.