“Once you get past Colorado, there are states that are very beautiful to drive through. But you can’t help it—you have a lot of time to think about what it could have been, how great it could have been, and it’s just depression, I guess … So much feels lost.”
– Kelly Reichardt


It’s 1845, and three pioneer families have come to a river while heading west through the eastern Oregon desert. They cross with their valuables in baskets held over their heads, refill their water barrels, wash their dishes, and press on again. Their wagons contain their whole lives. As they move away from the river, it slowly dissolves into the desert landscape, never to be seen again. That’s how the story begins.

The story ends in lush western Oregon–circa George W. Bush and an oncoming recession–with a woman hopping on a freight train going north toward Alaska, or a man wandering the quiet streets of Portland at night. Pioneers again, you might say, but with less hope that the end of the road will bring riches and glory. They don’t blaze trails so much as follow a path, and it seems increasingly to lead them in circles.

Oregon is not where we tend to look for the soul of America, but it’s where we find it in Kelly Reichardt’s most recent films, all of which feature rootless characters wandering through the state in various stages of disrepair: The three pioneer families pushing west in 2011’s Meek’s Cutoff; Wendy (Michelle Williams) heading to Alaska to look for work in 2008’s Wendy and Lucy; Kurt (Will Oldham) temporarily back home in Portland in 2006’s Old Joy.

The story Reichardt tells over the course of these three films begins with the end, finishes at the beginning, and leaves out the middle. But if we know where the rock was thrown (a wagon train, Oregon Trail, 1845) and where it lands (Portland area, early 2000’s), we can trace the implied 160-year arc of a country that, after briefly blossoming with opportunity, fell back to the condition in which it started, a state punctuated by desperation, helplessness, and people struggling with how best to live.

The late historian Tony Judt tells a similar story in his 2010 book, Ill Fares the Land. He begins in the 19th century, though in his case with the atrocious work conditions and non-existent safety net of Victorian England. His arc peaks with the glorious social democracies of the post-war years, when “there was a widespread belief that a moderate redistribution of wealth, eliminating extremes of rich and poor, was to everyone’s benefit.” And it falls again today, at our feet, at a time when Americans, Britons, and many others as well, are rejecting state solutions in lieu of a stifling belief in individualism.

In Canada, where I lived most of my life, we’ve certainly come to that point. The Conservative Party, led by Stephen Harper, has cemented a political dynasty after winning three consecutive elections in 2006, 2008, and 2011. They cut spending by $5.2 billion-a-year, a move that affects everything from the military to the CBC (our left-leaning, government-funded NPR), museums, parks, retirement savings, and more–nearly every department has seen cuts. Our environmental review process has been gutted, which the oil companies in the conservative Albertan heartland surely do not mind, and almost 20,000 federal jobs will shortly disappear.

Meanwhile in the U.S., where I live now, there is an ongoing constitutional challenge to a law that would guarantee health care for all Americans. At the center of it is the sad sight of a worthy principle like individual liberty being exaggerated to the point that it deteriorates lives rather than empowers them. There have been increasing steps to dismantle the abortion rights set out in Roe vs. Wade–through waiting periods, forced counseling, personhood amendments, and more. Congress has debated the finer points of who should and shouldn’t provide contraception to women.

All this is added to a pre-existing resistance to taxes that, even in the face of a newfound focus on income inequality courtesy of the Occupy movement, is becoming even more reified. As Judt writes, “[T]he idea that [taxes] might (also) be a contribution to the provision of collective goods that individuals could never afford in isolation … is rarely considered.”

What should our reaction be to all this?

I see battles rehashed that I thought had been fought before my time, with the dead buried and grudges pressed down far enough that they only resurfaced when the excuses of drunken belligerence or outdated views were ready at hand. It’s a feeling of losing what I’ve taken for granted.

I’ve also lost a sense of place. I’m losing my country, I think, which is just another way of saying that no one understands my shouts of, “But that’s just wrong!”

As the history books tell it, there were between 750 and one thousand people who followed Stephen Meek along the Oregon Trail in 1845. They arrived at their destination with twenty-three dead after taking a turn north to avoid a potential Indian attack (thus, Meek’s cutoff), getting lost, and running short on water.

But in Reichardt’s version there are three families: at the head, the Tetherows (Michelle Williams and Will Patton), then the Gatelys, and then the Whites. We join them as desperation begins to set in and Thomas Gately (Paul Dano) is etching the word “lost” into a dead tree trunk.

In the beginning, Reichardt shows us, the West was won, barely at all, with a mix of desperation and luck.

No one in the group believes that Meek (Bruce Greenwood) leads with much skill; some believe he is purposely leading them astray. The two-week trip across the Cascade Mountains has taken five so far with not even a mountain in sight. The water is running out.

The men confer to discuss options: do they hang Meek and strike out on their own, or press on with him in the hope that he gets lucky or proves to know what he’s doing? There is not much choice but to keep him.

Then a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) appears–a new potential guide with knowledge of the land but unclear intentions. Meek insists that he’s a threat: “You can feed them, you can treat them to the best fixings in their lives. They’ll turn around, steal your horses.” Again, the men confer: do they shoot the Native on the spot or trust that he might lead them to water in return for freedom? Not much to do but trust him.

Meek’s Cutoff is a film of whispers and askance glances, of wary decisions and widespread distrust. Instead of paths of glory cut by tough, resilient travelers, Reichardt’s pioneers are lost, weak, disorganized, and at the mercy of the elements. Even the divisions within the group and the racism toward the Native derive less from thought-out malevolence than from plain fear and ignorance of the world in which they’ve found themselves. They press on because of the promise of a better life on the other side, and because, ultimately, there’s not much to do but keep moving.

In the beginning, Reichardt shows us, the West was won, barely at all, with a mix of desperation and luck.

What happens next?

They make it West. Maybe not all of them, but enough. With industry and wealth comes economic, military, and cultural domination: the American century. It’s more complicated than that, of course. The story unfolds only with the help of injustice and war, but it stays alive by a general feeling of upward mobility. The American dream survives not because it comes true for everyone, but because it feels like it might, if people clamor enough and maybe butt a few heads.

Judt’s telling of this rise to greatness is simple. In five words: “Everyone believed in the state.” Even after World War II, when Republicans were in power and New Dealers were out, big government was the norm. From 1945-1975, the three decades that gave birth to “the American way of life,” the general agreement was that “high public expenditure, administered by local or national authorities with considerable latitude to regulate economic life at many levels, was good policy.” This was a time when the word “public” was not anathema, Judt tells us, and when taxation was not a cue word for thrown-up arms and shouting.

The result was prosperity, security, and greater equality. “Contrary to a widespread assumption that has crept back into Anglo-American political jargon,” Judt writes, “few derive pleasure from handouts … Restoring pride and self-respect to society’s losers was a central platform in the social reforms that marked twentieth-century progress. Today we have once again turned our back on them.”

That’s only one story, I know, but it’s worth emphasizing.

It’s also Reichardt’s story, although we don’t see the good middle part. What we see in Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy is a former economic powerhouse caught in stasis, and the people who once prospered either digging in or frantically moving, looking for somewhere to stand.

The politics in Reichardt’s films are rarely explicit. They’re more often contained in small gestures between characters and in the circumstances in which they’re forced to live. An exception comes at the beginning and end of Old Joy–a film about two childhood friends, Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London), who take a two day trip into the woods to find an isolated hot spring. A political call-in radio show bookends the film, and when we first hear it in Mark’s car, the focus is on the racial, religious, and party-line divisions that get exploited in American politics.

Of course, it matters that the most rotten are two of the richest men in the country, and the most absurd is a Supreme Court justice.

The show stops playing as the car moves out of the city, first away from party politics, then past the broken industry and the farmland, slowly backwards through social and political life until it’s just two guys in the woods drinking beer.

Kurt and Mark themselves are painfully divided. Mark now lives, works, volunteers, and has a pregnant wife in Portland. Kurt is nomadic, moving from one festival and drug experience to another, clearly having a good time, but also quite plainly embarrassed in front of Mark. And Mark evidently wants to retreat slightly from Kurt’s more manic behavior and borderline crazy theories about the universe as “a falling tear dropping down through space.” There was once a lot of love and affection between them, but it slips away.

Kurt and Mark’s friendship humanizes American political and social divisions more than it epitomizes them. Their story transforms our view of those divisions, not vice versa. And that only makes the reality sadder. Because, by that mark, today’s politics is a story of groups of people who maybe used to see things in reconcilable ways, but are now moving in clearly different directions. And that’s fine when you’re just two childhood friends; you don’t have to stay friends forever. It’s harder when you’re fighting over the fate of a country.

“You hear the word recovery all the time because they don’t dare use the word prosperity,” one caller to the radio show says about the Republicans at the end of the film. The Republicans might say the same thing now about the Democrats.

There’s always the story from the other side.

That story celebrates the decrease in government services–“[T]he worship of the private sector and … the cult of privatization,” as Judt puts it–beginning with Reagan, continuing through George W. Bush, and appearing now in Canada. It’s a story represented, at its most rotten core, by the über-libertarian Koch brothers–fewer resources for the needy, fewer environmental regulations, lower taxes of every kind–and at its most absurd by Antonin Scalia’s remark that, well, if the government forced us to buy health care, what’s to stop it from forcing us to buy broccoli?

Of course, it matters that the most rotten are two of the richest men in the country, and the most absurd is a Supreme Court justice.

When I first spent some time in New York, in 2009, I got into a discussion-slash-screaming match with a man at a reading-group-meeting-turned-birthday-party. We argued about how much of a role government should play in our lives, although all I really remember is his repeated use of the word “freedom.” (My memory wants to say that he growled, but I think we can chalk that up to the wine.)

Three years later and my response to him would no longer come in arguments but rather with the refrain from the final song in Robert Altman’s Nashville: “[Y]ou may say I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me.” They say individual liberty, and I say universal health care. It’s a battle of common sense. As in, the sense we have of the basic aspirations shared by our community. I thought I had a sense of that. That’s the basic illusion that begins to crack.

In Canada, a loud cheer broke out among Conservatives when they finally attained a majority of seats in the House of Commons in 2011, a step that would allow them to more easily turn their common aspirations into policy. As John Ibbitson wrote in The Globe and Mail, after the budget was announced: “Stephen Harper is diminishing the federal government for a generation, not simply to eliminate the deficit, but to reshape Canadian politics.” They are winning back their country, and so I feel like I’m losing it.

In the U.S., it’s different; all sides feel like they’re losing. What varies is the era you look back on for inspiration: the 80’s, 60’s, the New Deal, the Founding Fathers, or whatever else you please. In America, maybe everyone can agree that greatness is something the country exhibited in the past and that now has to be reclaimed. The realists among us probably understand that’s not going to happen. That’s why Reichardt’s movies are not characterized by anger, disappointment, or frustration–few people yell, clamor, or fight in her films–but rather by sadness in the face of something lost to time.

Wendy and Lucy was shot in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when Reichardt heard stories of people’s lives being restored by the sheer pull of their bootstraps. “[Screenwriter] Jon [Raymond] and I were musing on the idea of having no net,” Reichardt told Gus Van Sant in an interview for BOMB Magazine. “Let’s say your bootstraps floated away—how do you get out of your situation totally on your own without help from the government?”

“They treat me like trash, like I ain’t got no rights,” one fearsome homeless man says, not to Wendy but in her direction. “We lost, man.”

In Wendy and Lucy, Wendy tries desperately to believe in the future and the strength of her bootstraps. She travels from her home in Indiana to far-off Alaska with little more than a car, a toothbrush, and her dog, Lucy–an unwavering companion. What she’s running from is never stated, but that she’s running is certain; an awkward call home letting her sister know she’s stranded in middle-of-nowhere, Oregon, tells us as much.

Wendy’s car breaks down in town, and the replacement parts turn out to cost more than the whole vehicle’s worth, which is definitely much more than what Wendy, who has $525 in cash for her whole trip, can spend.

On top of that, Lucy runs away. When Wendy finally tracks her down, she is in a cozy backyard, rescued by a family who appear able to afford food for her, and who certainly wouldn’t put her through the experience of getting to Alaska without a car.

Even then, Wendy remains determined. “I’m gonna make us some money and I’ll come back,” she tells Lucy as she leaves to train hop north. Her hopes are for a job in a fish cannery, which she hears needs workers.

But nothing suggests that determination is enough. Two of the movie’s scenes, including a climactic one, take place under a bridge by the railroad tracks and in the woods, where Wendy has to sleep for a night. The characters Wendy meets have travelled the same road as her and they’re no more pulled up than when they started. “They treat me like trash, like I ain’t got no rights,” one fearsome homeless man says, not to Wendy but in her direction. “We lost, man.”

The Tetherows, Gatelys, and Whites probably didn’t have better prospects than Wendy when they migrated, but in Meek’s Cutoff you know that things swing up at the end of the journey (for the country, at least). In Wendy and Lucy, Alaska looks more like a place to end up when the arc bottoms out, prosperity runs dry, but life still goes on. The desert in Meek’s Cutoff bears the prospect of great possibilities even as the films tear at the mythologies of the past. Wendy and Lucy looks in desolation at a great thing gone corrupt. It is searching for a myth to believe in again.

But there’s a third story, too.

It’s the story of a Walgreen’s security guard (Walter Dalton) in Wendy and Lucy. He works the day shift–eight to eight. Not a bad job compared to the night shift he had before. Not a bad job considering how few people have one in this Oregon town. He’s strict enough to kick Wendy out of the parking lot when he catches her sleeping there in her car (a job’s a job), though he helps her park it on the street when it doesn’t start, and lets her use his cell phone when she needs to call the dog pound.

He has a girlfriend with a son to take a care of and he will probably never leave this town, but he reassures Wendy when she’s about to leave: “I hope it all works out. I know it will.” Then, with his back safely turned to his daughter, he gives Wendy some money to help out–six dollars, to be exact.

There’s also Mark’s story: happily married, expecting a child, with a personally enriching job. Mark is a bit worried about fatherhood. He’s not sure how he and Tanya, his wife, will adjust. “We’re both stretched so thin with work it’s almost impossible to imagine, but it’ll have to work itself out,” he tells Kurt. “We’ll just find another rhythm.”

“I’ve never gotten myself into anything that I couldn’t get myself out of,” Kurt responds; he can always keep wandering to somewhere new.

Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy are vignettes of what life might entail when recovery is all we can hope for and might not even get. Maybe we will be forced (or choose) to continue moving and wandering like the pioneers in Meek’s Cutoff, while finding it increasingly difficult to establish a home. Or we might settle into a new rhythm, a smaller life, and be content with what we have, even if it’s less than what was promised.

Fact is, every arc has two bottoms, and the beginning is actually like the end. Neither side has the assurance of knowing what comes next.

In Old Joy, at the hot springs, Kurt tells Mark about a dream he has where a woman, a cashier from a local store, consoles him when he felt depressed. “It’s okay, you’re okay,” she said to him. “Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy.”

Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and Meek’s Cutoff screened at the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of its Biennial.

Tomas Hachard

Tomas Hachard writes film reviews for The L Magazine and has also written for The Rumpus, The Millions, and The New York Times's "6th Floor Blog," among others. You can follow him on Twitter: @thachard.

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