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With rugged feminist piece 'Certain Women,' Kelly Reichardt shows why she's the last indie purist (for now)

With rugged feminist piece 'Certain Women,' Kelly Reichardt shows why she's the last indie purist (for now)
Michelle Williams in a scene from "Certain Women." (Nicole Rivelli/IFC Films via AP)

Over the course of a half-dozen films, director Kelly Reichardt has earned a reputation as a fiendishly stubborn artist. She has shot in extreme cold and insane heat, set up camp in remote deserts and corralled nearly two-dozen horses.

And she's really tired of it.

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"This level of filmmaking is in many ways a young person's game," Reichardt, 52, said with a sigh over tea one recent weekday evening. "While I was making this movie I thought 'something has to give.'"

The sentiment may surprise fans of Reichardt, the mistress of minimalism behind movies such as "Old Joy" and "Meek's Cutoff" and a kind of last-purist-standing of the indie film world.

"This movie" is "Certain Women," the director's new triptych about nominally related female characters across Montana's Big Sky terrain.

Expanding this weekend to nearly 60 screens nationally (from a total of five in Los Angeles and New York last weekend), “Women” continues a recent Reichardt trend. It brings together an improbably A-list cast — Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern and Michelle Williams — to do some of their most spare and rigorous work.

She's an artist. Artists are compulsive. They can't take the easy path.


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There's Stewart, as a lawyer-turned-teacher who enters an ambiguous relationship with a Native American rancher (Lily Gladstone). Dern plays a lawyer too, seeking damages for an impossible client in what soon ripens into a more fraught situation. And Williams is a reticent woman who must persuade an older man to sell his property.

Reichardt's feature — the first of the past five on which she did not collaborate with novelist-screenwriter Jonathan Raymond — tells tales of female empowerment, Reichardt-style. Instead of shouting from the mountaintops, the director asserts her feminism more quietly—she paints textured female characters, then strategically foregrounds them.

(After the presidential debate this week and its nasty-woman meme, a savvy marketing type took the poster for Reichardt's movie and redesigned it so that it read "Certain Nasty Women," adding Hillary Clinton's face.)

Reichardt, who comes from Miami but seems like the last person to come from Miami, got her start 22 years ago with "Rivers of Grass," a movie about a poor fugitive couple from her home state.

But it was "Old Joy" a decade ago that put her on the map. The film's Oregon-set story, about two Gen-X pals, both flirted with and subverted the machismo themes of male road-trip cinema. She has since gone on to explore other primal connections, including woman and animal (2008's "Wendy and Lucy"), woman and political forces (2013's "Night Moves") and woman and, well, certain women.

Reichardt practices what has historically been a male-dominated form of rugged filmmaking (think John Ford)  — many of her movies center on people confronting solitude — only with more sensitivity and emotional shadings. "I look at all my movies and I see they're really all about getting from point A to point B, about someone going from stuck to unstuck," she said. "I don't intend to do that, but for some reason they all do seem to be about that."

To help achieve this she uses extremely lean productions, with budgets that barely allow for two sticks to be rubbed together. "I guess I could do it the easy way. It just never seems like that comes naturally to me," Reichardt said.

She could, for instance, easily have shot horse scenes in the new movie with just three or four animals and repeated them in different shots — director Todd Haynes, a close friend, watched it and thought that was actually the number she used. But Reichardt wanted the film to feel real to ranchers who might be attuned to small differences between the beasts. So she rounded up more than 20.

Stewart said Reichardt's love of detail and process carries over to actors too. "Kelly is the very rare director who, when she tells you to do the chore in a scene, she actually wants you to do the chore," Stewart said. "It's not, 'Just make it look  like the chore.'"

These activities are even harder to pull off because they're generally taking place in sparsely populated environments that time forgot. Parts of the "Certain Women" shoot were so cold that Reichardt feared for her crew. "Yes, they were bundled up, but when it's negative six degrees and you're out there for 20 hours it doesn't matter. It was the kind of cold that could make you cry. It did make some people cry," she added, almost as an afterthought.

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Justin Chang reviews 'Certain Women'. Directed by Kelly Reichardt. With Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, James Le Gros. Video by Jason H. Neubert.

That may be nothing compared with "Meeks Cutoff," a movie about an 1845 incident in which a pioneer on the Oregon Trail led his people into danger. Shot in the Oregon High Desert, the film became almost too literal a re-creation, with temperatures soaring over 110 degrees and the nearest shelter, let alone motel, hours away. Even if Reichardt had a budget — her films are always made for less than $2 million — there would have been nowhere to spend it.

Some actors treat this experience as a welcome retreat from the usual cushiness. On "Night Moves," Dakota Fanning could be seen walking over the Maine freeway to bring coupons to Taco Bell. Other actors, particularly in the blazing sun and societal remove of "Meek's Cutoff," have balked, and Reichardt asked to go off the record to enumerate details of such incidents and the clashes she had with them over it.

Williams, who has made three movies with the director, said that she embraces the approach on set but has separate concerns.

"The artist in me loves that Kelly goes for it in this way," Williams said. "The friend in me wants to swaddle her in cotton and have people carry her across the set."

Williams felt so concerned about Reichardt that once, after the actress wrapped and moved on to a bigger-budget Hollywood set, she raided the craft-services table of her new movie, put the collected items in a package and shipped it to the remote outpost where Reichardt was still shooting.

Director Kelly Reichardt from the set of "Certain Women."
Director Kelly Reichardt from the set of "Certain Women." (Jojo Whilden / IFC Films)

Dressed in a sweatshirt, her reddish-cedar hair unfussily pulled back, Reichardt cuts an earthy figure. She has stayed assiduously out of the studio development game — so assiduously that she still supports herself by teaching at Bard College, which she does when not shooting, while living in a modest part of Queens, N.Y.

At the end of each semester she makes the epic drive to Portland, Oregon, where she rents a small place and communes with the likes of Haynes, screenwriting partner Raymond, Raymond's wife, the writer Emily Chenoweth, and the couple's daughters, often hiking in the nearby woods. (Reichardt says she has done the drive from New York to the NW more than 20 times.)

She generally prefers solitude and can't wait to get out of film festivals, usually making a beeline to her room for what she calls the "rehash" — assessments of the reaction to the film — with Raymond or Haynes. She said she despised Cannes when she brought "Wendy and Lucy" there and often is looking for escapes even from harsher locales.

"I remember in Sundance looking at a woman who was mopping a long hall and thinking 'I could do a good job with that,'" she said. "And I'd probably really like it too."

She paused and added, not quite jokingly, "I would totally mop the hall all day if it was a choice between that and doing press."

For now, she will continue making movies. Reichardt's next film is a collaboration with the Oregon writer Patrick DeWitt on his novel "Undermajordomo Minor," a castle-set parable.

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But is she really ready to leave the path of fiercest resistance? "I really think so," she said. "I don't want it to be so difficult anymore. Like I said, I'm too old for this…"

Not everyone is convinced.

"Did she say that?" Stewart replied, when told of Reichardt's resolution. "That's bull.… I don't think she'll do that. She's an artist. Artists are compulsive. They can't take the easy path."

On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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