Unlike, for instance, comedy or drama, both rooted primarily in inherent faculties of human emotion and empathy, certain cinematic genres find themselves and their life spans distinctly linked to specific cultural and historical contexts. Film noir is the classic example, its immediate life—from the early 1940s to the late 1950s—short enough to warrant the protracted argument that continues to this day as to whether it can indeed be classified a genre at all. Inextricably linked to the social circumstances of the United States in the period immediately following the Second World War, noir’s dominant themes and tropes, though still reworked now in films categorised as neo-noir, address issues particular to that place in that period of time. The western, too, though still more recognisably intact in its classical form than noir, would seem to offer little explicit relevance to modern America, its frontier narratives now outdated by more than a century. The road movie, then, is a particularly interesting case: arguably growing only more relevant with the passage of time and the ever-increasing ubiquity of infrastructure, the genre has nonetheless encountered ebbs and flows through the course of its lifetime that suggest an important link between social circumstances and the road’s cinematic exploration thereof. In briefly examining these resurgences and assessing the predominant narrative and stylistic tropes that characterise the genre, this essay aims to examine the films of director Kelly Reichardt in the context of modern America, and through them to posit the emergence of a new breed of road movie that speaks to the issues facing the nation today.
The road has always been a persistent theme of American culture. Its significance, embedded in both popular mythology and social history, goes back to the nation’s frontier ethos, but was transformed by the technological intersection of motion pictures and the automobile in the twentieth century. (Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark 1)
Ever before an understanding of the road movie’s relevance in contemporary American cinema can be broached, we must investigate the key aspects which define the genre and trace its evolution through the nation’s film heritage, particularly in the post-war period. Timothy Corrigan’s four-point definition of the road movie’s generic constitution is useful to consider here: the road as response to familial disintegration; the presence of threatening obstacles along the road; the postulation of the chosen means of transport as a sole bastion of security and familiarity in strange new territories; and the romanticisation of the road as male escapist fantasy, usually to the exclusion of the female (143-6). We will examine these tenets in greater detail when we come to consider Reichardt’s role as a filmmaker within this generic framework; for now, it provides us with a helpful basis through which to examine the historical prevalence of road narratives in American cinema. Most critics agree, of course, on the road movie’s origin in the goal-oriented journey narratives of classical literature, Homer’s Odyssey the most widely cited exemplar, and films—as adaptations of literary road narratives—such as The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940). Shari Roberts has claimed, and few would disagree, that it was Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) that codified the road movie and made it a genre of its own, rather than simply a recurrent icon of American cinema (51). Cohan and Hark, nonetheless, envision the noirs Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945) and They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948) as part of a first wave of outlaw road narratives that lay the foundations of the genre’s narrative and stylistic conventions. Such waves, they argue, “have occurred in eras where the culture is reevaluating a just-closed period of national unity focused on positive, work-ethic goals” (2). The second of those they classify, well-documented, is that of the New Hollywood. The third and final, of most interest to us, that which emerged “in the early 1990s as the Reagan era’s renewed offensive against the Communists lost its primary target and the masculinist heroics of the Gulf War gave way to closer scrutiny” (2).
We wondered how the lone-rebel, a fixture in every road movie, could exist in the ‘90s when even the Burger King slogan tells you to "Break the Rules." (Reichardt, 1995: 12)
It is here, amidst films such as Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994), True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993), and My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991), that Reichardt makes her initial imprint upon the road movie, and indeed American cinema at large. David Laderman has argued that the road movies of the era “reflect a postmodern aesthetic and self-consciousness” that “expresses this period's more conservative political climate” (50). Such is certainly the case with Richardt’s debut River of Grass (1994), which retrospectively reinterprets the lovers-on-the-run mythos of its forebears, drawing distinctly on the narrative framework of Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973). Reichardt displays a crucial understanding of her own place within American cinema, playing on the generic and iconographic precedents of her cinematic antecedents and reworking them as a means by which to pass postmodern comment on the tenets of the road movie and its misappropriation of American ideals. A stern inversion of the romanticisation of road outlaws, then still flagrantly exhibited—albeit in twisted variants—in True Romance and Natural Born Killers, the film portrays the relationship between apathetic young mother Cozy and no-good layabout Lee Ray, and their failed efforts to go on the run after they believe they have accidentally shot a man. Standing pointedly in opposition to the fallacious sense of escapism associated with the road, the film’s finale sees Cozy and Lee Ray, having consistently failed to raise money through means either side of the law, reach a toll booth and simply turn around and return home. Reichardt offers with River of Grass a resoundingly clear statement that the road and all it represents, despite its contemporary resurgence, remains closed to the disenfranchised youth; it is, as Emmanuel Levy writes: “a provocative meditation on… the future of movie myths, or how real life defies reel life” (403).
None better summate the effect of River of Grass than Reichardt herself, who termed the film “a road movie without the road, a love story without the love, a crime story without the crime” (quoted in Levy 402). The concept of a road movie without the road reverberates throughout her body of work, particularly in the extremely low-budget, 48-minute Ode (1999), filmed in two days on Super 8 after financing for a second feature repeatedly fell through. Even in this, a film defined by its stillness, Reichardt’s obsession with the road can clearly be seen. Ode begins and ends with the suicide of Billy Joe, who leaps to his death from the Tallahatchie Bridge; in flashback, we learn of the significance of this for Bobbie Lee, who—overly sheltered by her Baptist parents—has been secretly involved with the boy for some weeks now. Though the action is confined entirely to the boundaries of this prototypical small-town America setting—a droll voiceover begins the film with the words “It’s a story as American as apple pie. An all-American girl from an all-American town”—Ode alludes to the representational quality of the road as an emblem of freedom. Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee are each often shot against the road, walking along its centre framed by its edges as it stretches off into the distance, their dream to escape this physical and psychological space visually expressed in Reichardt’s implementation of road movie iconography. Michael Hammond writes that “…the strip of highway which disappears over the horizon… [has] continued to offer essential ingredients for rendering the American experience as rootless, wandering and redolent with endless promise” (17); in repeatedly returning to this image throughout the film, Reichardt invokes the potentiality of all the road signifies, whilst never allowing her characters the escape from their small-town American existence to attain it.
While River of Grass and Ode each provide an interesting contextualisation of their period in US history and cinema both, it is not until the next decade that Reichardt comes to make her first significant impression on the landscape of American film. Of the decade-plus period between River of Grass and Old Joy (2006), Reichardt has commented: “During the “good years” I couldn’t get a film made to save my life” (2008: 78). It is indicative of the potentiality of the road movie—and of Reichardt’s particular take thereon—then, that it should find renewed success at a time of arguable crisis in American national identity, with the nation cast in the shadow of 9/11 and subsequent wars, and exacerbated by the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression. Clearly cast in the mold of the male escapist fantasy of which Corrigan writes, Old Joy’s intimate focus on two male characters offers one of Reichardt’s most interesting evaluations of modern America. Following old friends Kurt and Mark as they reunite over the course of a camping trip, the lyrical film juxtaposes their contrasting lifestyles as opposite exemplars of American idylls, the latter a soon-to-be-father living life in suburbia, the former an idealistic individualist existing on the peripheries of society. These character archetypes, equal cornerstones of American identity—particularly in its cinematic heritage—offer a dichotomous tension we also see exhibited in contemporary road movies such as Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007) and Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004). Most interesting of all, however, is the overt sexual tension which exists between the men in Old Joy, Reichardt invoking the possibilities of the road movie to explore, as Hammond puts it, “erotic homosocial tensions at play in male-male relationships, heightened by the road movie’s alteration between the wide-open spaces of the landscape and the enclosed space of the car” (16). In the cramped confines of their vehicle and the mostly undisclosed nature of their personal history, the men evoke an immense intimacy which reaches a sensual climax as they visit hidden hot springs, the underlying sexuality in which their relationship is constantly steeped here allowed to manifest itself as a reconcilement between the disparate life outlooks, fitting Bennet Schaber’s claim that “[t]he utopian hope of these films is that, in tracing a single, marginal path, one might discover so compelling an image that margin and mainstream, preriphery [sic] and center, would once more cohere” (38).
It is interesting to note the pronounced stylistic distinction undertaken in Reichardt’s work between River of Grass and Old Joy: where the former took its cues from a clearly American heritage, the latter owes a greater debt to European cinema. This influence is even greater in Wendy and Lucy (2008), of which Reichardt notes:
We were watching a lot of Italian neorealism and thinking the themes of those films seem to ring true for life in America in the Bush years. (2008: 78).
Prominently comparable to Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica, 1952) in particular, not solely for its focus on the relationship between a dog and its owner, Wendy and Lucy looks at America through the lens of European cinema, providing—to some extent—an exterior view. Consistently subversive, it begins with a journey clearly characterised by physical and emotional destinations, deliberately codifying itself as a road movie, before bringing things to a startling halt by denying its characters the ability to undertake this journey. Overtly referenced in the dialogue—“Not a lot of jobs around here, huh?”—the growing economic issues are a rising concern for Reichardt, given voice in Wendy’s inability to afford the upkeep of her dog Lucy or repairs for her broken-down car, which renders her another solitary figure framed against the freedom the road represents, yet unable to attain it: the immobility of the characters speaks to the immobility of contemporary America, and the manner in which it is stilted in its current place. This, coupled with the European sensibility of the film, is prominently echoed in Gerry (Van Sant, 2002), which—along with taking distinct inspiration from the Hungarian Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000)—similarly paints its characters as aimless figures cast upon the road, unable to progress along it.
What ultimately links the road movie to the Western is this ideal of masculinity inherent in certain underlying conceptualizations of American national identity that have persisted, if only through continual ideological struggle. (Roberts 45)
Having specifically addressed the aimlessness and immobility of contemporary America, Reichardt turns her attention to the past with Meek’s Cutoff (2010), less a road movie—though still exploiting elements of that formula—than a revisionist western, again a distinctly American genre. The manner in which Reichardt subverts the expected tropes of the western aesthetic and narrative is perhaps even more radical than in her earlier films, most immediately apparent in the film’s use of Academy ratio. Reducing the panoramic vistas so often associated with frontier mythology, the confinement of the vast expanses to a smaller screen space constitutes a firm rejection of the romanticisation of the west, as too does the minimal plot, bereft as it is of the sensationalist violence seen in so many earlier iterations of this particular genre. Indeed, in returning to the roots of the nation and imposing upon it the realist sensibility typical of her work, Reichardt undermines the sense of refuge provided by the past and refutes the escapist fantasy of American history as often postulated in western narratives. More specifically, she depowers the male characters of the film, whose refusal to acknowledge that they are lost presents a patriarchal crisis that indicates a deeper dissatisfaction with a leadership that has brought American to new frontiers in modern times with seemingly just as little direction: “Will it become American land?” is the question posed by one of the film’s characters as they wander further into unfamiliar territory, led by a native they seem unable to decide whether to trust. Patriarchal crises of a similar sort can be seen in several road movie narratives of recent years, from the uncertain parentage of Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, 2005) to the emasculated trauma of This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino, 2011), each suggesting certain failures in the leadership of father-figures.
Tracing the growing success of Reichardt’s films across her career, we can clearly identify a certain trend that gestures to a wider paradigm in contemporary American cinema, the road movie fulfilling—as per Cohan and Hark’s definition—a representative role for this time of change in the nation’s society. Indeed, though Reichardt’s unwavering obsession with the genre may position her work as the strongest indicator of this burgeoning trend, hers are but a handful of the wide variety of road movies which have appeared to address the dominant crises facing America today, caught as it is in numerous overseas conflicts and just as many domestic troubles. With their seeming disavowal of the achievement of narrative aims, endings pitched toward overtly negative or ambiguous conclusions, and characters who are fortunate even to emerge from the story as isolated as when they entered, these films could be seen to constitute a new wave of road movie, uniquely tailored to a new wave of American issues.
Cohan, Steven and Ina Rae Hark. “Introduction”. The Road Movie Book. Ed. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark. London: Routledge, 1997. 1-14. Print.
Corrigan, Timothy. A Cinema Without Walls: Movies and Culture after Vietnam. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991. Print.
Hammond, Michael. “The Road Movie”. Contemporary American Cinema. Eds. Michael Hammond and Linda Ruth Williams. London: McGraw-Hill, 2006. Print.
Laderman, David. “What a Trip: The Road Film and American Culture”. Journal of Film and Video 48.1 (1996): 41-57. Print.
Levy, Emmanuel. Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film. New York: NYU Press, 2001. Print.
Reichardt, Kelly. Interview by Gus van Sant. BOMB 105 (2008): 76-81. Print.
———. Interview by Todd Haynes. BOMB 53 (1995): 11-15. Print.
———. Interview by Todd Haynes. BOMB 53 (1995): 11-15. Print.
Roberts, Shari. “Western Meets Eastwood: Genre and Gender on the Road”. The Road Movie Book. Ed. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark. London: Routledge, 1997. 45-69. Print.
Schaber, Bennet. “Hitler Can’t Keep ‘em That Long: The Road, The People”. The Road Movie Book. Ed. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark. London: Routledge, 1997. 17-44. Print.
Badlands. Dir. Terrence Malick. Warner Bros., 1973.
Bonnie and Clyde. Dir. Arthur Penn. Warner Bros., 1967.
Broken Flowers. Dir. Jim Jarmusch. Focus Features, 2005.
Detour. Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer. Producers Releasing Corporation, 1945.
Easy Rider. Dir. Dennis Hopper. Colombia Pictures Corporation, 1969.
Gerry. Dir. Gus Van Sant. Epsilon Motion Pictures, 2002.
The Grapes of Wrath. Dir. John Ford. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1940.
The Hitch-Hiker. Dir. Ida Lupino. RKO Radio Pictures, 1953.
Into the Wild. Dir. Sean Penn. Paramount Vantage, 2007.
Kiss Me Deadly. Dir. Robert Aldritch. Parklane Pictures Inc., 1955.
Meek’s Cutoff. Dir. Kelly Reichardt. Evenstar Films, 2010.
My Own Private Idaho. Dir. Gus Van Sant. New Line Cinema, 1991.
Natural Born Killers. Dir. Oliver Stone. Warner Bros., 1994.
The Night of the Hunter. Dir. Charles Laughton. Paul Gregory Productions, 1955.
Ode. Dir. Kelly Reichardt. Glass Eye Pix, 1999.
Old Joy. Dir. Kelly Reichardt. Film Science, 2006.
The Postman Always Rings Twice. Dir. Tay Garnett. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1946.
River of Grass. Dir. Kelly Reichardt. Good Machine, 1994.
Sideways. Dir. Alexander Payne. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2004.
Thelma & Louise. Dir. Ridley Scott. Pathé Entertainment, 1991.
They Live By Night. Dir. Nicholas Ray. RKO Radio Pictures, 1948.
The Third Man. Dir. Carol Reed. British Lion Film Corporation, 1949.
This Must Be the Place. Dir. Paolo Sorrentino. Indigo Film, 2011.
True Romance. Dir. Tony Scott. Morgan Creek Productions, 1993.
Umberto D. Dir. Vittorio De Sica. Rizzoli Film, 1952.
Wendy and Lucy. Dir. Kelly Reichardt.Field Guide Films, 2008.
Werckmeister Harmonies. Dir. Béla Tarr. 13 Productions, 2000.
 Cohan and Hark offer only these two examples here; elements can also be seen particularly in The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953), Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldritch, 1955), The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946), and arguably even The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) and The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955).
 A classification furthered by the eventual revelation of a fragmented family situation and the emergence of distinctive threats, as per Corrigan.