Genre Is a Woman: Kelly Reichardt’s Subversive Night Moves and Meek’s Cutoff

Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard in Kelly Reichardt’s NIGHT MOVES (2014). Courtesy Film Forum. Playing Wednesday, June 8 and Thursday, June 16.

Writing in Cinema Scope, Blake Williams describes Kelly Reichardt as a filmmaker who “has tended to train her attention on subjects trying, and inevitably failing, to navigate the world outside of the established order.” To take it a step further, her two latest (discounting Certain Women, which premiered at Sundance and will likely see a release later this year), Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves, are about women failing to fit into worlds prescribed by genre. In these films, only the men, from the cowboy fighting off Native Americans to the detective solving a crime, have agency to assert heroism and justice. New Hollywood directors highlighted the toxicity of masculinity, revealing the myth of various genres in the process. Reichardt’s films—as with many screening in Film Forum’s “Genre Is A Woman” series highlighting genre films directed by women—ask what becomes of women thrown into these worlds when the curtain has been pulled back on the alleged savior, relocating the feminine as a virtue unto itself.

There is a moment near the beginning of Night Moves, the director’s 2014 heist film, in which the protagonists, eco-terrorists who reside in separate communes, watch a film warning of the earth’s unsustainable track. As Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) looks on, arms crossed, from the back of the room, Dena (Dakota Fanning) asks its creator what her big plan is, and how people should react to the ever-worsening threat of climate change and depletion of natural resources. In her only lines in the film, the filmmaker (Clara Mamet) says the talk of a big plan is harmful, and that she envisions instead “a lot of small plans.” Perhaps because of his success in The Social Network, Eisenberg is now something of a Kuleshov effect for negative emotions, and his reaction of cynical, smug disaffection registers as a particularly masculine riposte calling for bigger action. Indeed, the personal-politics approach, in which people create in their own communities the change they want in the world to initiate a bottom-up approach, is at odds with the genre film, in which an archetypal character is thrust into a situation that mirrors some real-life scenario or ideology, and his navigation through it creates some form of moral clarity.

No wonder Josh is surprised when he returns to the commune to see his radical act decried as ineffective “political theater” (a claim that echoes in meaning, if not in words, early film theory on Hollywood). To make matters worse for Josh, Dena’s conscience is telling her to go to the police, a betrayal of the implicit honor code and an admission of wrongdoing that the men in both Night Moves and Meek’s Cutoff are incapable of doing. Dena’s fate is hardly surprising, but it exposes the degree to which destructive codes of honor and “big plans,” however counterproductive, are the stuff of men. It is fitting, then, that Reichardt puts much less emphasis on the film’s heist than on its fallout.

Night Moves at once follows the template of heist films such as Rififi—another film about a mostly unacquainted trio joining together for one big job before turning on each other—and remains strangely detached from it. As Josh and Dena go to meet explosives expert Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), Dena complains irritatedly about the distance, the ensuing conversation echoing not the humorous bickering one might expect, but the annoyed conversation of regular people. As obstacles ranging from insufficient ammonium nitrate fertilizer to Harmon’s criminal record to the need for a Social Security Card crop up, initial sniping makes way to calm, unhurried solutions, downplaying the tension. All the same, Reichardt’s patient, observational takes, from her shots of barren trees to an insert shot of a garbage dump, opt for verisimilitude at odds with the heist flick.

The heist itself, the climax of so many similar works, is downplayed. Reichardt mitigates the tension of an explosive timer by significantly compressing time, minimizing the viewer’s anxiety in the process. Even a car not starting—a potential disaster—responds to the second turning of a key as quickly as the viewer can process it. By the time the job is complete, the film is only just crossing the halfway mark.

Michelle Williams in Kelly Reichardt’s MEEK’S CUTOFF (2011). Courtesy Film Forum. Playing Sunday, June 12; Tuesday, June 14; and Wednesday, June 15.

Just as Night Moves‘s lack of an elongated heist and firm sense of locality separate it from other heist films, Meek’s Cutoff separates itself from westerns through an absence of expansive gunfights and chases and with its more languid pace. Both films defamiliarize the genre as audiences understand it, placing it within the confines of realism, where the virtues of femininity can be more convincingly asserted.

Loosely adapted from real events, Meek’s Cutoff follows a small band of settlers as Stephen Meek attempts to guide them across the Oregon High Desert. As the journey stretches beyond the expected two weeks and supplies and water run low, Reichardt’s camera lies with the women, who assume the point-of-view shots that make up the film. In this way, the film recontextualizes the 1.33:1 aspect ratio of the classic western, with the smaller frame paralleling the view from under the women’s bonnets. Ironically, only the women “see” clearly, understanding that they have lost direction far before the male leaders are willing to acknowledge as much, thereby implicating previous westerns for their own male-centered tunnel vision. All the same, the women talk almost exclusively with one another, occupying some parallel realm of better ideas and an adherence to reality lacking in the men, who are content to take Meek on “his word” and trust “their gut” despite obvious shortcomings.

Meek’s Cutoff does not dwell upon the failings of the men as much as it champions the virtues of the women, so often forgotten or reduced to less flattering archetypes in the western. In this verisimilitudinous world, they are more than capable of taking the reins, as we see when Emily (Michelle Williams) proves herself a good shot with a rifle, but propriety prevents it. If the effeminate small plans of Night Moves are posited as ideal through the failing of the opposition, Meek’s Cutoff instead proposes the virtues of a femininity whose wings are clipped, making visible what the western film has long suppressed.

“Genre Is A Woman” showcases films ranging from the pre-Code era to today and everything in between, so the range of critiques, subversions, and fulfillments of genre conventions is something to behold. Where Reichardt focuses on feminine virtue, Kathryn Bigelow continues to interrogate masculinity at its extremes through lenses both parodic (Point Blank) and political (Strange Days). Barbara Loden’s Wanda examines feminine expectation, disavowing the constraints of domesticity only to find alternative models just as entrapping. Exploitation films of Doris Wishman and Stephanie Rothman sneak subversion and critique into seemingly incompatible models. The wide range of films—in era, in genre, in directors—implicitly reject the notion of simplification or generalization, but Reichardt’s films are an ideal entry point in that they implicitly suggest the virtues of women within genre films, whether that be in front of or behind the camera, and point to the series as an opportunity to stretch our understanding of genre theory beyond the masculine norms.

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