From Lily Gladstone to Laura Dern, these are the best performances in a Kelly Reichardt film, as chosen by a group of critics who love her work. Buy our ebook about Kelly Reichardt’s work.
In anticipation of our ebook, Roads to nowhere: Kelly Reichardt’s broken American dreams, we asked a group of Reichardt fans to answer one question. What’s your favourite performance in a Kelly Reichardt film?
It’s a near impossible question to answer, given the wealth of great lead performances in Reichardt’s work and the cast of character actors who add that extra magic to each of her ensembles. From Lily Gladstone to Laura Dern, here are their answers.
Alex Heeney (@bwestcineaste), Editor in Chief for Seventh Row
There are so many great performances in Kelly Reichardt’s films, and so many that tend to go unrecognized. Daniel London’s quiet but passive aggressive Mark in Old Joy (2006) is a masterclass in the importance of listening to performance; Michelle Williams in Certain Women (2016) is similarly beautifully reactive. Jesse Eisenberg’s twitchy Josh in Night Moves (2013) may seem like the regular old Eisenberg tics, but here he portrays someone both stupid and constantly thinking, a real feat.
But the performance I’ve been thinking about most since my latest rewatch of Reichardt’s films is Peter Sarsgaard in Night Moves. In the film, he plays a laid back ex-con in charge of masterminding the ecoterrorism plan — who proves incompetent, indifferent, and full of lies at every stage. I found myself in awe of how Sarsgaard expressively uses his hands. Consider the scene when they go to buy fertilizer and Dena (Dakota Fanning) is told she needs a social insurance card to proceed. Sarsgaard calmly and cooly thinks it through, decides it’s bullshit, and sends her back in, and he communicates so much of this by how he moves his hands, in an echo of his thought process. Or the scene where they’re eating dinner before the crime and a hiker tries to engage them in conversation. Sarsgaard manages to be neither friendly nor unfriendly, merely avoiding eye contact and looking bored until the man gets the message.
Fran Hoepfner (@franhoepfner), Editor at Large for Bright Wall/Dark Room
My favorite performance in a Kelly Reichardt film is Lily Gladstone’s in Certain Women. Reichardt navigates quiet longing in so many characters in a number of her films, but Gladstone is equal parts steely and swooning as the rancher who develops a life-altering crush on her community college teacher, Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart). I think fondly of the distances Gladstone’s character goes — both literally and physically — to be close to this other woman, and it resonates in a way that few other queer characterizations have. To be in the process of falling in love is a matter of work, and Gladstone embodies all of the effort it takes to muster affection and attention for another.
Emily Kubincanek (@emilykub_), freelance writer
Lily Gladstone’s performance in Certain Women has stuck with me since the night I first watched Kelly Reichardt’s spectacular drama and I hope it never leaves me. Her character’s unabashed longing for human connection is shown through Gladstone’s soft expressions. Long before her character recognizes her own feelings for Kristen Stewart’s Elizabeth, the audience can see it in the way she gazes across the diner table at her. Gladstone’s ability to display what her character is thinking without any or few words is perfectly matched with Reichardt’s quiet, yet deeply personal filmmaking. In other films, the Rancher’s impulsive decision to go after someone without any forethought or plan would have an idealized outcome, but that would never fit in a Reichardt movie. Instead, Gladstone’s face on her long ride back home to the ranch shows the heartbreak that comes when acts of love aren’t returned. As heart-wrenching as the end is, Reichardt shows the beauty in our ability to feel for someone else and even knowing someone at all, even if just for a moment.
Per Morten Mjølkeråen, Founder of NoPress
I don’t think I can pick one single performance, solely for the reason that there are too many great ones. But since I have to, I would probably pick Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy (2008). It’s less refined than their other collaborations, but it’s all the better for it. It’s the type of performance, and film, that might seem simple, but is actually the exact opposite. Williams’ performance is one of self exploration and self realization. It’s both a mirror of yourself and a window to the other.
Kelly Reichardt mug: ‘Sorrow is just worn-out joy’
Brett Pardy (@AntiqueiPod), Associate Editor of Seventh Row
Toby Jones was not an actor I expected to see in a Kelly Reichardt film, yet his acting persona is ultimately perfect to represent British colonialism. Jones is always a memorable actor, and often plays sycophants to the powerful in franchises like Captain America, The Hunger Games, and Jurassic World – what better choice for the Chief Factor in First Cow (2019)! Jones’ carries himself like a man play acting aristocracy, walking with his cane and top hat through the mud of the trading post. Jones captures a complete obliviousness to the importance of his Indigenous wife as translator and revels in his ability to command. Jones’ best moment is his delivery of the line “I taste London in this cake” as if he’s experiencing a spiritual moment. This reading haunts me because Jones, in both his manner and delivery, underlines the pathetic nature of the colonial endeavour. He is tragically tied to the nostalgia for home, yet so driven by desire to have prestige he accepted a post about as far from home as imaginable which destroys the precious homes of others.
Lindsay Pugh (@womaninrevolt), Founder of Woman in Revolt
Lily Gladstone’s performance as the Rancher in Certain Women is one that I think about often. With very little dialogue, Gladstone perfectly communicates the Rancher’s loneliness and vulnerability. With a flick of the eyes or a breath held too long, we see how desperate she is for human connection. Despite her lacking social skills, she’s willing to take chances that may not always pan out according to her desires. There’s a whole life outside of her individual experience that she wants to access, but her inability to find the right words creates a roadblock that is difficult to overcome. I can’t imagine anyone else in this role. Gladstone’s eyes are her greatest asset, capable of simultaneously communicating pain, interest, joy, and frustration with immense clarity. Although not much happens in the way of plot, Gladstone takes the viewer on an emotional rollercoaster and engenders the type of empathy and understanding that I rarely experience with a fictional character. It is an astonishingly nuanced performance, especially for a new actor.
Orla Smith (@orlamango), Executive Editor of Seventh Row
Picking my favourite performance in a Reichardt film is a near impossible ask — how do you overlook the Lisa Bowmans, Daniel Londons, Michelle Williamses, and Lily Gladstones in favour of just one person? Especially when Reichardt’s films thrive off brilliant ensembles. I was tempted to be a contrarian and highlight Jared Harris’ funny, mournful turn in Certain Women as a stubborn but sweet, overemotional and invasive client to Laura Dern’s lawyer. His hilarious reading of the line “I’m a guy in prison!” in the film’s epilogue earns him the right to the title alone.
But my pick has to be his scene partner, Dern. Her character in Certain Women is the most settled and set in her ways of all the women who lead the film. Lily Gladstone’s incredible performance in the film’s final segment might have touched more people more deeply, because she gets to act out the pining of unrequited love and the subsequent heartbreaking rejection. Michelle Williams in the same film also plays a more traditional role in the sense that her character has a clear motivation: to buy sandstone for the house she’s building.
But Dern’s Laura is just trying to get on with her life uninterrupted. Dern’s wearied gazes and her heavy sighs project a sense that, in days passed, Laura’s ambitions might have been greater, her hopes brighter, but time and sexism and disappointments has worn her down. While the film’s script doesn’t get into specifics, in the time we spend alone with Laura, watching her think, Dern gives us a rich sense of this woman’s history. What’s more, she’s equally as hilarious as Harris in their scenes together, where her frustration with this demanding man feels all too real.
Fiona Underhill (@FionaUnderhill), Reviews Manager of JumpCut Online
My favourite performance in a Reichardt film is Lisa Bowman as Cozy in River of Grass (1994). It’s one of those performances that grabbed me within the first couple of minutes of screentime and I knew I was going to end up loving the film. Cozy is a really refreshing character to see onscreen — a flawed, selfish mother who isn’t a cartoon villain but seems completely real. Donaldson’s performance is totally authentic and vanity-free. I love everything about it.