Selected filmography: Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008)

When I say that Kelly Reichardt is the leader of American indie cinema, I mean real, low-budget, independent cinema; not the multi-million-dollar David O. Russell or Wes Anderson “indie” cinema that's financed by major micro-studios. Reichardt’s films are so indie, they can barely afford plots. 2006’s Old Joy follows two guys who embark on a one-night camping trip, get a little lost, have a few beers, reach their destination and then return home. 2008’s Wendy and Lucy follows a young woman whose journey to a new job in Alaska is interrupted when she must search for her lost dog.

Not much happens in either of these films, both of which are set in Oregon, yet their minimalist design and soulful observation of humans and nature have so much to say about America and the people who live on its margins. Both Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy are about individuals who set out for a new life while trying to cling on to something from the past.

In Old Joy, Mark (Daniel London) is expecting a child, yet he’s unsure of exactly how he’s going to grow into the role of a father. When Mark sets out on a road trip with his estranged, hippy socialist friend Kurt (Will Oldham), it’s an active attempt to cling on to his old lifestyle before he fully commits to a life of compromise. What the two men realize on the course of their journey—besides the fact that they have no idea where they are headed—is that the gulf between them is wider than they had assumed.

Kurt is the dramatic center of Old Joy, since it is he who hopes to tag along with Mark as he progresses through life. Yet the road trip leaves him stranded, living on society’s fringe, broke with very little hope. He’s not far off from where he began, only he now he realizes that he has nowhere to go.

Kurt’s fate is not unlike that of Michelle Williams’ titular protagonist in Reichardt’s superior follow-up Wendy and Lucy. On the way to find work in Alaska while escaping a vaguely sketched life of poverty, Wendy’s beat-up car breaks down in Oregon—just the first beating her meager budget will take. Her dog Lucy gets lost after an unfortunate turn of events, and Wendy ends up stuck, searching for her companion while her destination keeps getting further and further away. The timely 2008 film, released just as the Great Recession was getting underway, sharply observes how impossible it is for the poor to get out of being poor. Like Kurt, Wendy is stuck in transition, constantly moving with no fixed address, but never getting closer to stability.

Poverty is immobility in both of Reichardt’s film, which allow the characters and the setting to speak to America’s own political and economic crises. The Oregon background Reichardt favors in her beautiful compositions is almost always outdoors, where nature is interrupted by industry, and roads and train tracks flow through vast stretches of open space like sites of passage that take you to the middle of nowhere.

Reichardt is a filmmaker who gets stronger with age, and her work in this decade only set the stage for better things to come (see Meek’s Cutoff). While she has been tellingly compared to the neorealists and the Dardennes, her films set themselves apart from European arthouse. Her images carry a conversation with American mythology, with such Western signifiers as the open road, the wilderness, and (on occasion) the gun remaining prevalent to the stories she tells.

Reichardt’s paving a new path for American indie cinema, one, slow and meticulous film at a time. —Rad Simonpillai