Cows Aren’t Built to Swim: Kelly Reichardt’s Essays on the Unvoiced

Exploring an American cinema of misfits and margins.
Michael Pattison

MUBI is showing Kelly Reichardt's newly restored debut River of Grass (1994) globally August 5 - September 3, 2016. In the United States and United Kingdom, more films by the director are also playing.

“You meeting someone here tonight, Cozy?”
“Nah, I just had the urge to get out.”
“Yeah? I had the urge to drink. So it’s fate.”

— Lee and Cozy, River of Grass 

“The wind’s not gonna be kind tonight.”

— Solomon Tetherow, Meek’s Cutoff 

Kelly Reichardt’s is a cinema of misfits and margins. Of survival and getting by. In her debut feature, River of Grass (1994), a romantic naïf and her drifter boyfriend go on the run for a crime they’re convinced they’ve committed. In Old Joy (2006), a contentedly married man and soon-to-be father agrees to a road trip with an old pal, only to realize that the two are on divergent paths: the latter, frustrated by everyday pressures, is struggling to match his mate’s social stability and seemingly upward curve. In Wendy and Lucy (2008), we trace the causal thread that determines a young homeless woman’s separation from her pet dog (and only companion). In Meek’s Cutoff (2011), three families hoping to migrate west via the Oregon Trail in the middle of the nineteenth century find themselves badly lost and in desperate need of water. In Night Moves (2013), two radical environmentalists and a former Marine carry out an act of eco-terrorism.

At a key moment in Meek’s Cutoff, a significant conversation takes place virtually out of earshot. Three men debate their next course of action with the eponymous fur trapper who has led their wagon train astray; in watching the discussion in long shot, we assume the vantage point of the men’s wives. Sound levels are appropriate: like the women, we have to listen intently to pick out words from the exchange. Reichardt frames her action through the unvoiced; excluded observers of decisions being made. As if to approximate the limited perspective imposed upon her female characters through contemporary sartorial custom (they all wear bonnets), Reichardt shoots in the Academy ratio. The bluntly square composition startles: here, the romantic would-be vistas of the West have been humbled to the narrower needs of survival. 

Reichardt eschews spectacle. In Night Moves, the explosive turning point in the drama—a literal explosion, of 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate placed at the foot of a dam—takes place off-screen. We only hear it, as our protagonists sit three-abreast in their getaway car staring beyond the aft-facing camera. One of them manages a smirk but the others are too visibly nervous to muster much of anything. In Wendy and Lucy, what makes the protagonist’s final decision to leave her beloved canine behind so heartbreaking is that it seems to have been the only logical outcome all along, given the mounting problems that stem like poisonous snakes from her fundamental financial need. As one character says in Meek’s Cutoff: “You can’t drink gold.” 

If Reichardt’s worlds appear naturally harsh, brutal and unforgiving, then their inhabitants are proportionately resilient. As another character says in Meek’s Cutoff: “It’s not today that’s weighing on me.” In Old Joy, we see two formerly close friends discover that only one of them still shares some desire to act out a rootless existence. Or does he? Kurt’s repeated jabs at Mark’s apparently more mature lifestyle at first seem barbed, but later, by drunken firelight, he reveals something closer to self-resentment. Ultimately, his pronouncements of pride at Mark’s success are as sincere as the massage he gives his friend in the hot springs they’ve driven to—though at first, in a moment of exceptionally controlled ambiguity on Reichardt’s part, the intimate gesture unsettles Mark, takes him (and us) aback.

Old Joy’s tensions simmer. There are no arguments, no clashes. Mark and Kurt’s final farewell is a whimper, one founded on a sad, mutual understanding of the distance that has crept between them. “Sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy.” When Mark returns to his pregnant wife, a coda sees Kurt adrift in the streets: Reichardt shoots from afar, from across the road, framing this lonely wanderer amidst an urban nocturnal bustle, a life in flux that seems harsh at best and hostile at worst. These scenes seem especially alive after the preceding tranquility of the Mount Hood National Forest; they have a documentary-like urgency that encapsulates Kurt’s ongoing restlessness.

Reichardt doesn’t so much streamline or typify her characters as allow them to emerge, gradually, from their environment. Again, if we can take the severity of their environment for granted, we can also count on their built-in ruggedness. Stephen Meek boasts: “I live with this world, not just in it.” Here, notions of dwelling are paramount. The dissolves employed early on in Meek’s Cutoff are so slow that they mark passages in space as much as they do time: rather than convey landscape as successive, they show two landscapes seemingly merging. To the laidback guitar-led soundtrack by Yo La Tengo, Old Joy fixates at several points on the sleepy rural fabric of the Cascade mountain range in Portland, Oregon. Night Moves, meanwhile, is named after the otherwise disposable vessel in which our three eco-warriors drift upstream to commit their terrorist act, in a beautifully judged sequence foregrounding the natural environment of the river that leads to the dam.

Utilizing characters and landscapes in such a way, Reichardt’s films resist an easily definable tone. Action is anecdotal rather than decisive, fragmentary rather than fluid: not quite gestural or symbolic, but a little too improvised or elliptical to seem fully realistic. Favoring the quotidian over the set-piece, the writer-director makes us work: at the beginning of Meek’s Cutoff, all we get in terms of exposition is Oregon, 1845—which appears on the title card—and one character etching “LOST” into a tree trunk. Dialogue is frequently off-screen: some exchanges unfold solely through reaction shots, which effectively frustrates our scene-to-scene orientation. 

In eliciting our active participation to decode their deceptively simple narratives, Reichardt’s films might in this way be seen as essayistic in nature. Just as the essay film has become an increasingly common stomping ground for artists and filmmakers frustrated by or excluded from an industry dominated by questions of profit, Reichardt’s small-scale, low-budget projects fall in line with that peculiar form of experimental-authorial filmmaking. Her films contain journeys—metaphysical, existential, psychological—but they aren’t quite stories in the linear sense. They are essays, dispatches, riffs on a theme. (Several have been co-written with Jon Raymond, and adapted from his own short fiction.)

Germs of these traits are laced throughout Reichardt’s debut feature. A droll reworking of the lovers’ crime spree, River of Grass presents a fairytale romance as a B-picture comedy of errors, one whose humor and whimsy are built through a number of essayistic techniques: voiceover (“I’ve heard it said…”), chaptered intertitles, point-counterpoint cutaways, ironic musical cues. Its title is a reference to Florida’s Everglades; the action takes place across Broward and Dade Counties. Reichardt was herself born in Dade County, though was living in New York when she made the film. This sense of displaced auto-geography might account for its underlining tension between childlike awe and photographic adoration. 

Again, landscape is integral to the action. This is a genre tale set against the non-places of North Miami: Blue Note Records, the Bottle Cap Inn, Swifty Coin Laundry, Nails X Pressions, the Nueva Aurora Supermarket. If the film is today a snapshot of a particular geography in flux, its cartoonish violence, jazz soundtrack and borrowed scenarios make it appear especially and charmingly anachronistic. (Lee’s botched stickup of a convenience store is on par with the lathered soap gag in Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run, while one plot point entailing a policeman’s lost firearm repurposes Kurosawa’s Stray Dog into something more Chaplinesque. The voiceover is pure Badlands: “I knew Bobby loved me and I figured that someday I’d grow to love him too.”)

What makes River of Grass seem anomalous in Reichardt’s career isn’t its Florida backdrop (her next four features were all set in Oregon, though her latest, Certain Women, takes place in Montana), but its slapstick; there are few things to laugh at in Old Joy, in Wendy and Lucy, in Meek’s Cutoff or Night Moves. But the director’s first feature anticipates their curiosity for the interstitial: Lee and Cozy, ill-fated partners in crime, are in flight from respective ennui. The film’s (anti)climax occurs on a toll road. When Reichardt described the film as “a road movie without the road, a love story without the love, and a crime story without the crime,” she might have been advancing a general manifesto for her oeuvre. It’s a body of work built on ideas of opposition: to established tropes, genres, working patterns. In this too it is essayistic, and in this too it favors the unvoiced.

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