Kelly Reichardt is now one of the most established directors in indie cinema and her distinct melancholic tone and understated film-making has often had a hypnotic quality - see Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff. Reichardt's latest effort is certainly proving itself a festival darling (it won Best Film at the London Film Festival), but is it going to live up to the hype?
The film is a collection of three scarcely connected vignettes: the first follows Laura Dern as a lawyer struggling with a wronged and helpless client whose issues escalate; the second follows Reichardt-regular Michelle Williams as a sullen wife and mother on a property-related mission; and finally newcomer Lily Gladstone is a solitary rancher leading a repetitive existence until she meets a tired young law teacher (Kristen Stewart) by chance.
The nature of this episodic structure opens itself up for uneven quality, and that is definitely the case here. Dern's story and character is well-acted and the laid-back approach to an intense situation that emerges is certainly a case of Reichardt's style taking control. It's always interesting to see her take on a scene that comes with some specific thriller genre conventions, but instead provide a tragically slow-paced crisis; I feel the sense of Reichardt's sympathy in the situation comes with the brilliant Jared Harris as Dern's client, while Dern's lawyer, apart from some extra-martial sex, is pretty much a saint. Their final encounter really aids the film's overall theme: a desire for human connection.
The second and weakest vignette is with Michelle Williams. Her character perhaps is supposed to be seen as a cipher but she just comes across as a bitter misery, and her small 'victory' related to the property of some sandstone really underscores this certain woman's petty victories in the day but perhaps makes one question how dissatisfied she must be in everyday life. This seems the most simplistic story in its symbolic storytelling and execution. Beyond a sense of ennui, it feels the least relevant to the film's overarching themes and is the least riveting of the three tales.
The final and best execution of Reichardt's themes and storytelling is that of the nameless 'Rancher' and her attempts to connect with Stewart's strung-out teacher. Lily Gladstone is a real find as the lonely Rancher, she along with but more so than the other performers, executes a minimalist performance with aplomb - her eyes betray her every emotion and really sells the most pivotal scene of the film when it comes. The Rancher's life is like Groundhog Day, and there is both poetry and monotony in her cyclic days, but she quietly comes to life with Stewart (who continues to impress with her interesting choice of roles and understated performances). A quiet tale of longing develops with some interesting takes on romantic clichés but builds to a devastating climax; the proceeding repetition really builds to the crushing emotion here.
Reichardt, in addition to the slow and methodical storytelling, continues to use the landscape to tremendous effect, the cinematography is gorgeous and the location plays a great role in underscoring every scene. The beige mise-en-scène and continued use of animals is also noticeable throughout too; this is trademark elements of the auteur. There is a definite sense that every minor detail is being utilised for as much ambiguous depth as possible, due to that it does feel highly academic and dry in places (particularly Williams' story), but you can tell that while this is a film aimed at cinephiles and academics, that doesn't deny its complexity for eventual study in years to come. It just might help it to be a modern classic if it perhaps provided some slightly more entrancing sequences more often, but Reichardt's complex feminist film-making will always be commended.
Trademark methodical storytelling from indie auteur Kelly Reichardt, but a slight, mixed bag nonetheless.