Criterion Blu-Ray Reviews: Kelly Reichardt’s ‘Old Joy’ and ‘Certain Women’

Kelly Reichardt’s films transport the viewer to parts of the U.S. often left unseen by Hollywood. Although born in Miami, Reichardt often trains her camera on the beauty of the Pacific Northwest or the wide open spaces of the West. Her two films in the Criterion Collection, Old Joy (2006) and Certain Women (2016) provide a perfect introduction to her work.

Daniel London and Will Oldham in Old Joy.

Old Joy is the intimate story of a bond between two men whose lives have turned out very differently than they expected. Based on a short story by Jonathan Raymond, it stars Daniel London as Mark, an Oregon man who has settled down from his wilder years. One day, Mark’s old friend Kurt (Will Oldham) arrives in town and suggests they go to a hot springs. Mark, sensing a chance to escape his humdrum life for just a couple days, accepts.

And that’s basically the film. The two men drive up to the isolated hot springs, catch up on old times and go back to their lives when it is over. But if this is all you get from Old Joy, you are missing a deeply moving and intimate look at relationships between men. In just 73 minutes, Reichardt and Raymond (who collaborated with the director on the script) reveal more about friendship than any other film.

Stripped bare of any overblown plot points or extraneous characters, Old Joy focuses on just the connection between these two men at very different places of their lives. The performances by London and Oldham add to the feeling of intimacy in the work. Everything about their performances helps the audience further understand their characters. By the end of the film, you feel as if you could be friends with them too.

Michelle Williams in Certain Women.

A decade later, Reichardt once again examined bonds in Certain Women. Using short stories by Maile Meloy as the foundation, Reichardt took her skills to the wide open landscapes of Montana. There, she tells the story of three women – lawyer Laura (Laura Dern), wife Gina (Michelle Williams) and rancher Jamie (Lily Gladstone). These stories have little connections except the Montana setting and themes. Although all three women have relationships with others, they seem disconnected and lonely, trapped by the isolated world they live in.

While viewers know what to expect from segments featuring Dern and Williams, who each show magnificent understated acting performances perfect for Reichardt, the best story features Gladstone. In her breakthrough performance, Gladstone plays a rancher in search of any human connection. She finds it in Elizabeth Travis (Kristen Stewart), a law school student teaching a school law class four hours from her home.

One day, Elizabeth does not show up to the class, and the horror that plays out in Gladstone’s face is heartbreaking. She rushes to the town Elizabeth lives at and tracks her down, only to learn that the one other person she connects with does not feel that strongly about her. It’s a real human moment films do not typically show. We have all had that feeling, when someone we know could become a good friend suddenly disappears and there is little chance to bring them back.

The supplements for Criterion’s releases of these two films are rather simple. Each features a cover painting by Riccardo Vecchio, whose painting style of landscapes is a perfect match for Reichardt’s work. The supplements are also newly-recorded interviews. Reichardt provides brief overviews for each film, while Todd Haynes – an executive producer on both films – provides an interview on Certain Women. Criterion also conducted interviews with the authors behind the stories, who reflect on working with Reichardt. Old Joy also includes a conversation between actors London and Oldham, and the Blu-ray edition includes Raymond’s complete short story.

Certain Women also includes the essay “Trapped Under The Big Sky” by NPR critic Ella Taylor. The Old Joy essay “Northwest Passages” was written by Ed Halter, critic in residence at Bard College.

Old Joy and Certain Women could only have been made by a director whose films seem to have more in common with literature. Reichardt’s films may have short running-times, but they beg to be experienced and thought about for much longer. Her scenes linger and the pace is slow because she does not want you to turn the page immediately. Her images linger to give the audience a chance to embrace the world around her characters and understand what’s going on in their heads. The end of a Kelly Reichardt film comes with the same feeling as reaching the end of a good novel. You want to read and re-read that last page to grasp every part of it.

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