I feel sorry for Kelly Reichardt. Firstly there’s the struggle many filmmakers currently face, namely striving to make small, character driven dramas that speak loudly to fundamental human issues. Then there’s the fact she’s a woman. The latter means that when people mention the lack of female directors working today the reply is usually ‘well, there’s Kelly Reichardt’ as if that makes it all okay. Or there’s the school of thought that, like Kathryn Bigelow at the other extreme, she doesn’t focus on women’s films so that’s okay. Yes, there is the brilliant presence of Michelle Williams in two successive breakthrough films for Reichardt, Wendy & Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, but she is deemed acceptable in commercial indie films because these are sandwiched between the male driven Old Joy and latest work Night Moves. Night Moves starts as an ensemble film but unravels through the character of Josh played by Jesse Eisenberg. The three earlier films mentioned are included in a new collection released by Soda Pictures on Blu-Ray this week just prior to Night Moves, what might be another breakthrough film for her, being released in cinemas by Soda again on Wednesday.
She shouldn’t need another breakthrough. Reichardt is not a great female director. She is a great director. Period. Seeing her work collected together is a reminder that she is a supreme chronicler of modern humanity even when the lens is focused on those traversing the period plains of Meek’s Cutoff. We need more sensibilities like Reichardt’s for sure, at both ends of the commercial spectrum and where we no longer have a middle ground – the mid range drama is all but extinct in American cinema. It’s Guardians of the Galaxy or Upstream Color. Nothing in between. Which sucks, because Reichardt has shown over the course of a career that came to prominence with 2006’s Old Joy that hers is a wonderful voice of sensitivity, morality, creeping tension and quietly cinematic scope. It’s a voice that moves, challenges and inspires and it’s sad that we have to be grateful when we hear she is making a new film when the likes of The Expendables are a sad inevitability. The disc of Old Joy includes her debut feature, 1994’s River of Grass, which is a welcome addition meaning that pretty much her entire oeuvre can now be enjoyed, just as her new film hits cinemas.
Her latest is another, mostly, brilliantly tense and evocative piece. Night Moves deals with three disparate but equally committed people brought together in the common cause of eco-revolution and a plan to blow up a dam in Oregon. The sabotage sequence is a mercurial piece of filmmaking akin to a Melville-ian or Dassin-ian heist. Excruciatingly tense and brimming with both danger and the serene calm that comes from belief in purpose. All goes well, seemingly, until the news reports something unexpected. Beliefs and characters fray and the calm exteriors crack, revealing startling traits. The three eco-warriors played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard are enigmatic and relatable and the situation presented by the screenplay is nuanced and challenging in terms of deciding on a moral position as a viewer. It’s a film about consequences and following a path that feels right but can soon skew into wrong.
Unlike Reichardt’s previous work though it feels overstretched and not a completely rewarding whole. Up until the last twenty minutes the film is bravura, deeply engaging cinema. However, having the female character be the first to crack and cry and giving her hives feels like an obvious, backwards step and the final 20 minutes feel like they are from a different film. It’s almost a betrayal of the complexity woven through the characters up to that point. It’s startling how much it jumps the shark. That said, until that point it’s another masterful piece of filmmaking from one of the great contemporary American filmmakers. Just don’t tell me we should be lucky and that Reichardt is enough. We are but we aren’t. And it’s not.