The Quiet Menace of Kelly Reichardt’s Feminist Westerns

The Quiet Menace of Kelly Reichardt’s Feminist Westerns

“her films are all, in their own strange way, westerns. The shots are rife with the genre’s archetypal motifs — horses, trains, buttes — and the quiet stories she tells, of lonesome, seminomadic searchers struggling to maintain dignity in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, fill the screen as forcefully as any film that John Wayne was ever in. Reichardt’s protagonists tend not to be men, however, but emotionally inarticulate women, whose problems the supposedly civilizing force of frontier justice never proves strong enough to fix.

While a lone man can be a hero — readily and right from the start — a lone woman is cause for concern. Despite their painterly settings and near-silent soundscapes, Reichardt’s films are animated by a sustained unease. The viewer anticipates a threat that could but never quite does progress to a state of emergency. A car crash produces no injuries. A nocturnal encounter with intoxicated homeless men does not result in sexual violence. An old man gives every indication he could die at any moment but does not. The menace is durational and transforms the audience into participants in a kind of endurance art. It’s the low-grade but unrelenting sense of hazard that is a woman’s experience of merely moving through the world, an anxiety so quiet and constant it can be confused for nothing more than atmosphere.”

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