Film Review: Two Films by Kelly Reichardt

Film Review: Two Films by Kelly Reichardt
Old Joy, 76 min Feature Film, 2006
Wendy and Lucy, 80 min Feature Film, 2008
Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Few contemporary filmmakers are as well-versed in the art of cinematic minimalism as Kelly Reichardt. From the natural sounds of birds chirping and water flowing, to the crescendo of trains setting off into the distance, Reichardt is a filmmaker who enjoys the beauty and mystery in seemingly everyday life. Her first two feature films, 2006’s Old Joy and last year’s Wendy and Lucy, share the same affection for lingering shots of nature, restrained dialogue, and characters whose silences and mannerisms speak volumes of who they are. The films are also intimate studies of aging, finding one’s place in the world, and the changing face of this country.

In Old Joy Will Oldham and Daniel London star as buddies who have gone their separate ways but reconnect for a two-day excursion into the Oregon woods in search of a secluded hot spring. The film opens with Mark (London) meditating in the backyard of his rundown, Portland bungalow. The message machine picks up a call from Kurt (Oldham) who is in town and has ‘big, big news.’ A look of worry washes over his wife’s face.

Accompanied by Mark’s dog Lucy, the two hit the winding roads of rural Oregon in search of Kurt’s “off-the-map” hot spring. The two reminisce of old friends, now extinct old haunts, and catch up on where their lives have taken them.

Old Joy is in many ways a buddy, road trip film, with a dash of social realism; specifically in the way people drift apart over the years. Reichardt excels at not giving us official backgrounds to her characters but through their mannerisms (Oldham and London’s facial expressions alone speak volumes of their inner thoughts) and tidbits from their past it’s clear that Mark took the somewhat traditional route in life, whereas Kurt, having “never gotten involved in something he couldn’t get out of,” is still on an unsure path. 

Oldham, who also carries the alter ego as musician Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, shines as Kurt who comes off as the harmless, free-spirited soul most of us have come across at some point in our lives. Despite his casual, live-the-dash mentality it is clear he carries a weight of sorrow with him. 

His rundown van, faded clothes, light wallet and lack of a solid life foundation come across as almost childish to Mark, who at one instance belittles Kurt over the phone to his wife but then gently plays along with Kurt’s plan to somehow rekindle their friendship. 

As Kurt regales his buddy with long-winded stories about beach parties at Big Sur and hot spring excursions in Arizona, Mark’s complexion falls somewhere between jealousy and indifference. Mark appears content with his life–a baby on the way, a new direction in his carpentry work–but it’s obvious he too is hiding something. 

As their trip progresses frustrating scenarios arise, awkward confessions are professed (mainly by Kurt who misses the golden days of their friendship), and a terribly true-to-life barrier between these once seemingly close friends continues to rise. 

Between their ramblings on work, dreams, the physics of the universe, and Mark’s baby on the way, Reichardt fills the screen with shots of the stunning environment, set to the equally lulling music of Yo La Tengo. There are long moments of silence between the two, especially during the film’s pinnacle hot spring soak, which, again, furthers the notion that these two can’t seem to reconnect. 

When they return back to the reality of their separate lives we are left with Kurt as he wanders the Portland streets at night amongst other drifters, homeless, and others who are seemingly lost in the conventional world around them. 

Like Old Joy, Reichardt’s follow-up/companion piece Wendy and Lucy doesn’t follow a traditional beginning, middle, and end story line but rather meanders through its characters’ journey, in this case a young woman and her dog.

Michelle Williams, in undoubtedly her finest and most unexpected performance to date, stars as Wendy, a quiet, tomboyish drifter on her way to Alaska. After her weathered Honda hatchback breaks down in a sleepy Oregon town (the doting attention given to the Pacific Northwest in her films is another of Reichardt’s cinematic traits), Wendy experiences a series of unfortunate events that include getting arrested for shoplifting, paying a substantial amount of money from her dwindling Alaska fund, and in turn losing her beloved companion Lucy (the same Lucy, Reichardt’s mutt, from Old Joy).

Along the way she encounters a group of fellow youthful nomads at a pseudo hobo campfire (including a memorable cameo by Oldham as a free-spirited wanderer named Icky), befriends an elderly K-Mart security guard, barters with a surly mechanic and has a scare with a ranting homeless man. All while searching for her lost dog, leading up to an emotional breakdown in a gas station bathroom. 

William’s spoken dialogue throughout the film is limited but she makes up for her character’s reserved nature with an unprecedented knack for emotionally saturated facial expressions, mannerisms, and a complex world behind her mesmerizing eyes. It is said that Williams, who did the film for practically nothing, was so involved with the character that she resisted from bathing or washing her ratty clothes and was never once recognized during the shoot.

Reichardt only hints at Wendy’s back-story, mainly seen through a telephone call made to a relative in Indiana. We don’t know why she’s headed to Alaska or what she’s running away from? That she’s on the move is all that really matters. In the manner Williams carries her character it’s evident that she’s a bit lost in life but determined nevertheless to reach her Yukon goal. 

While the camera closely follows the increasingly forlorn Wendy, another character to develop is the town she stumbles upon.  Set during the Bush administration in small town America, Wendy and Lucy’s slow pace mimics the malaise of a dying part of this country. While set in Oregon, this could be anywhere U.S.A. In one scene the security guard mentions the town once had a functioning mill but since it shut down the town is light on work. He comments, “I just don’t know what the people do all day.” 

Unlike Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy lacks a transitioning soundtrack but rather drifts along to the diegetic hum of trains, the preferred mode of transportation for a great deal of drifters in the U.S. The film reaches one somewhat major climax but begins and ends much like an authentic chapter in one’s life. Shot in the moment, without any allusion to past or future, the film gives a new meaning to the term realism. 

With only two feature films (both of which were based on short stories and are concise, clocking in at a perfect 80 minutes each) under her belt, Reichardt is just beginning what will hopefully be a fruitful film career. Her background is in film studies, and her knowledge of the medium shows for a fairly novice filmmaker. Wendy and Lucy, which topped many critic’s top-ten lists last year, will be the film most interested viewers will gravitate towards, however, Old Joy is not to be missed. Both films, while different on the surface, share similarities warranting an easy back-to-back pairing. Reichardt intentionally leaves her stories open-ended with the characters embarking into the unknown, however, this lack of closure gives the films a resonance that carries with you long after the credits roll. o:p>