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Highway to Hell? Images of the American Road in Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and Meek's Cutoff


This article examines representations of the road in the work of independent Florida-born film director Kelly Reichardt. Reading Reichardt's so-called Oregon trilogy, Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), and Meek's Cutoff (2010), alongside radical anti-freeway and anti-automobile movements from the Pacific Northwest, I argue that Reichardt's films offer critical engagements with the subject of the American road, interrogating the freedom and emancipation from social constraint it purportedly offers.

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1 Whitman, Walt, “Song of the Open Road,” Poetry Foundation (1856), at

2 Springsteen, Bruce, Born to Run (Columbia, 1975).

3 Stein, Gertrude, “The Gradual Making of the Making of Americans,” in Stein, Selected Writings, ed. Van, Carl Vechten (New York: Random House, 1946), 211–29, 226.

4 Reichardt, Kelly, Old Joy (Kino International, 2006).

5 Reichardt, Kelly, Wendy and Lucy (Soda, 2008).

6 Reichardt, Kelly, Meek's Cutoff (Oscilloscope Pictures, 2010).

7 This section is not intended as an exhaustive survey of the road's appearance in American postwar culture: such an enormous undertaking, which would have to include an examination of the significance of roads in American music – most notably country music and hard rock – is beyond the scope of the present article. Here instead I take examples of American culture's tendency to mythologize the road and argue for parallels between respective instances.

8 Kerouac, Jack, On the Road (New York: Penguin Classics, 2000), 7, 9.

9 This is made particularly plain early in the narrative in the association Kerouac establishes between his protagonists and the figure of the cowboy: “Then Omaha, and, by God, the first cowboy I saw, walking along the bleak walls of the wholesale meat warehouses in a ten gallon hat and Texas boots, looked like any beat character of the brickwall dawns of the East except for the getup.” Ibid., 17.

10 Didion, Joan, Play It as It Lays (London: Fourth Estate, 2011), 18.

11 Ibid., 16.

12 Ganser, Alexandra, Roads of Her Own: Gendered Space and Mobility in American Women's Road Narratives, 1970–2000 (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2009), 218.

13 Whitman, “Song of the Open Road,” pt. 15.

14 Ibid., pt. 13.

15 Deleuze, Gilles and Parnet, Claire, Dialogues Two (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 125.

16 Deleuze, Gilles, “Having an Idea in Cinema,” in Deleuze and Guattari, ed. Kaufman, Eleanor and Heller, Kevin J. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 14–19, 18.

17 Penn, Arthur, Bonnie and Clyde (Warner, 1967).

18 Hopper, Dennis, Easy Rider (Columbia Tristar, 1969).

19 Scott, Ridley, Thelma & Louise (MGM, 1999).

20 Laderman, David, Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 12.

21 See Leong, Ian, Sell, Mike, and Thomas, Kelly, “Mad Love, Mobile Homes, and Dysfunctional Dicks: On the Road with Bonnie and Clyde,” in Cohan, Steven and Hark, Ina Rae, ed., The Road Movie Book (New York: Routledge, 1997), 7089, 77.

22 Critical attitudes towards the road and the car as its cypher may also be discerned in the work of literary modernists who attempted to bear witness to the changes wrought by the massive increase in car manufacturing in the early decades of the twentieth century. John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer, for instance, emphasizes the threat cars pose to the well-being of city dwellers: “What right have those golblamed automoebiles got racin round the city knocking down wimen an children?” one of his outraged characters asks. Passos, John Dos, Manhattan Transfer (New York: Penguin Classics, 2000), 34.

23 Eliot Henry Fackler, “Protesting Portland's Freeways: Highway Engineering and Citizen Activism in the Interstate Era,” master's thesis, University of Oregon, 2009, 88.

24 Thompson, Gregory L., “Taming the Neighborhood Revolution: Planners, Power Brokers, and the Birth of Neotraditionalism in Portland, Oregon,” Journal of Planning History, 6, 3 (1 Aug. 2007), 226, doi:10.1177/1538513206297457.

25 Dunn, James, Driving Forces: The Automobile, Its Enemies, and the Politics of Mobility (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998), 15.

26 Buel, Ronald, Dead End: The Automobile in Mass Transportation (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972), 4.

27 Ibid., 166.

28 Karina Longworth, “Kelly Reichardt Explains ‘Meek's Cutoff,’ Her Latest Road Movie,” 4 May 2011, at

29 See William Henry Gray, A History of Oregon, 1792–1849: Drawn from Personal Observation and Authentic Information (1870), available at, 360.

30 Goulder, William, Reminiscences: Incidents in the Life of a Pioneer in Oregon and Idaho (Boise: T. Regan, 1909), 124–25, available at

31 Ibid., 131.

32 Clark, Quoted Keith and Tiller, Lowell, Terrible Trail: The Meek Cutoff, 1845 (Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1966), 132.

33 See ibid., 84.

34 Sam Adams, “Interview: Kelly Reichardt and Jon Raymond,” 26 April 2011, at

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Journal of American Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-8758
  • EISSN: 1469-5154
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