Certain Women: Trapped Under the Big Sky

Amid the current clamor for strong female characters, the films of Kelly Reichardt can seem regressive if you’re not paying close enough attention. From her terrific debut feature, River of Grass, through Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff and all the way to her most recent film, Certain Women, Reichardt has brought us incomplete, quietly suffering women (and, in Old Joy, men) who are alarmingly unempowered, who struggle to feel their way into change they may or may not attain. That’s the point: Reichardt’s films are intense procedurals of the inner life, and her modus operandi is to allow unexpressed longings to hang quietly in the air so we can feel them too and watch what happens when her characters try to act on them. Often, their habitats speak louder than they do: Reichardt’s specialty is the transformation of landscape—whether cheerless wasteland or broody paradise—into a stage for journeys of the parched soul.

Certain Women opens with a long shot of a cargo train plowing across an endless Montana plain. There is beauty to burn here, and a hint of desolation in the train’s mournful horn as it pulls into Livingston, a town in the wide-open spaces of a state that has earned the nickname Big Sky Country. In and around that small town, we meet three strong-willed, uneasy women trying to shrug off or rise above or transform lives that feel too small for them. Each gets her own story in this portmanteau film, and though the women may brush against one another in passing, they will never meet. By the end, you might wish they had, if only to dissipate the loneliness that rises off them like morning fog. Reichardt weaves in comedy, in varying shades of wicked black, but she’s never one to shy from despair, even at the close of a film.

She adapted Certain Women from three stories by the terrific Montana writer Maile Meloy. Having worked with the short-story writer Jonathan Raymond on several of her films, Reichardt is at ease with the form, and it’s not hard to see the attraction Meloy’s powerfully stripped-down prose and deceptively simple structures hold for the director. Both artists are interested in the inner lives of hemmed-in or untethered outcasts who simultaneously feel stranded and long for change. Both are world builders, exquisitely attuned to physical environments, the rhythms of work, the complicating pulls of love and family. In their stories, what passes for resolution often involves a kind of trailing off to an uncertain future. It’s hard to think of a contemporary filmmaker more delicately sensitive to ambiguity than Reichardt. Her films are profoundly political and tacitly feminist. Yet there’s a creative mistrust of the manifest, the facile, and the glib here that’s quite rare even on the fringes of independent filmmaking where she makes her home. From her early exposure to the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Reichardt told IndieWire, she discovered that “you could secretly tell a political story just through a person’s small-scale, minute-to-minute life.”

If Reichardt has rightly been called a minimalist—Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu are also profound influences—she’s a maximalist of repressed passions. Certain Women (2016) is the director’s sixth feature, and in every one, she has required her actors—chosen, perhaps, for their soulful vibe and ability to emote from the inside out—to work really hard at not doing very much while implying they contain multitudes. In the years since River of Grass (critically lauded upon its release in 1994, and vividly restored and rereleased in 2016), Reichardt has slowly accrued enough industry heft to add a few marquee names to her stock of unknowns and such indie stalwarts as James Le Gros and Larry Fessenden. Her big break came when Michelle Williams, brought to Reichardt by filmmaker Todd Haynes (a close friend and an executive producer on Certain Women), came on board for Wendy and Lucy (2008), in which she plays a near-wordless young woman drifting across America to Alaska in search of work during the recession. The actor, who has a face custom-built for woe, returned as a quietly seething frontier wife in the 2010 period drama Meek’s Cutoff.

Williams also occupies Certain Women’s middle story as Gina, a wife and mother from out of town who wants to buy native sandstone from a confused local elder (René Auberjonois) to use for the weekend home she means to build nearby with her husband, played by Le Gros. Williams barely moves a muscle, but Gina’s frustration with her passive mate and truculent teenage daughter (Sara Rodier) seeps through in the actor’s flinty gaze and the stubborn set of her jaw. There’s sadness, too, in the uncertain flutter of Gina’s fingers as she waves timorously to an old man whom she senses she may have wronged. Gina’s obsessive pursuit of “things that fit in,” her fierce insistence on what she defines as authenticity, underscores what we’ve already gleaned from hostile exchanges within this uneasy family—namely, that she’s the outsider here, and that tucked away inside her victory lies a deeper defeat.

No wonder the action in this episode, such as it is, unfolds against a bleak backdrop of leafless trees and scudding clouds. Landscape is always critical in Reichardt’s films, but less as mood-inducing wallpaper or to corner us into obligatory emotional response than to place us within a particular world, to make us see what a protagonist sees and feels at a given moment. She’s rigorously spare with music; mostly it’s ambient noise—the solitary bark of a dog, the rhythmic clack-clack of a train car on tracks, the quiet buzz of news or commentary from a car radio, the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves—that serves as soundtrack.

Aside from River of Grass, which is set in the Everglades region of Reichardt’s native Florida, all her features until this one have been set in the Pacific Northwest, where she often spends her summers: a wooded, mountainous landscape defined by mercurial shifts in light and weather. At first in Certain Women, the flat Montana vistas seem to open up that terrain. Gina’s struggle for control unfolds mostly outdoors, a hint that she is rooted nowhere. In all three stories, the women drive up and down a seemingly endless ribbon of road that connects the region’s townships, in search of escape or human connection. Yet there’s also a sense of entrapment within the encircling mountains in the distance.

That quality of confinement clings to the film’s first segment, in the drab walls of home and work that seem to close in on Laura (Laura Dern, deglamorized in dowdy skirts and sweaters that suggest a woman who has learned to expect little from the world), a Livingston lawyer who is frustrated at being held captive by men who range from the careless to the feckless to the barking mad. In the last case, Laura quite literally enters a hostage situation when an injured workman, played by an entertainingly overwrought Jared Harris, wreaks havoc in pursuit of the workers’ compensation Laura has repeatedly told him he’ll never win. The tone here is a usefully confounding blend of bleakness and black comedy. Reichardt’s mischievous eye for the absurd or incongruous detail flashes in a deadpan cutaway to a young man in Native American costume ordering mall food, or in a remark that a stolid security guard who is also being held is a “member of the Samoan royal family.”

There’s a way to read Laura’s tale—as well as River of Grass and Night Moves, a 2013 thriller of sorts starring Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning as eco-activists trying to blow up a Pacific Northwest dam—as a crime caper. It’s in the blood: Reichardt’s mother was a narcotics agent, her father a crime-scene investigator. Her leisurely narratives may not readily present as genre films. Yet Meek’s Cutoff is a languorous feminist western, and both Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy are slow-cinema road movies. One way or another, all her characters hit the road, as she herself has done—she was driven around America in childhood and roamed the country as an itinerant adult. Except that where they’re going—and, for that matter, whether they will arrive—interests the director less than the pressures that dampen, crush, or liberate their spirits along the way. In Laura’s story, the drama lies not in the giddy plotting but in her palpable loneliness, measured in the flickering lights of a police car, in the way her red-painted toes scratch her dog’s fur, and in the wistful gaze, caught in a mirror, that she turns on a departing lunchtime lover who carries us forward into Gina’s life.

Laura survives, after a fashion, and returns to pass so briefly through the movie’s powerful third segment you may miss her if you blink. Here things get really minimalist and gestural, and at the same time overflow with buried longing. Against stiff competition from Dern, Williams, and now Kristen Stewart, the little-known actor Lily Gladstone—a native Montanan of Blackfeet and Nez Percé ancestry—pretty much walks away with Certain Women as a young ranch hand working a winter gig on a snowbound farm near the small Montana town of Belfry. We never learn her name, and for a while we come to know her only through the repetitive rhythms of her work caring for horses (the rituals of work take up unhurried time in Reichardt’s films), in the way she clomps around her cramped living space, and in the minuscule shifts that flit across her broad, sweet features. Slipping apparently at random into an evening class in school law, the young woman instantly grows attracted to her teacher, Elizabeth (Stewart), a newly graduated lawyer who makes the long drive from Livingston for each session of the class.

For all her star wattage, Stewart cedes the spotlight to the newcomer without vanity. Dressed way down in a shapeless skirt and a childish embroidered sweater, this hilariously incompetent pedagogue reads aloud to her students from index cards in a stupefying monotone. Her unregistered auditor is enchanted nonetheless and shyly invites the teacher to a late dinner at a local diner. It’s hard to imagine two people less given to chitchat, but in their halting way they begin to open up to each other.

In Meloy’s short story, the farmhand is a man and the lopsided attraction heterosexual. You can’t really call the awakening in Reichardt’s version (or in the superbly delicate Old Joy, about two men trying to renew an obsolete friendship on a camping trip) a coming out. But a solemn night ride on a horse qualifies as a date for at least one of the two women. She has developed a crush or fallen in love, and she confesses her attraction without guile, to the evident discomfort of its object, a diffident young woman whom life has ground down before she has hit thirty.

Like all of Reichardt’s films, Certain Women is about turning points, not arrivals. Somewhere on the long drive home after she has bravely stuck her neck out, the ranch hand falls asleep and veers off the road into a field. We’re free to read this as failure, or at best a squelching of desire. But there’s a stillness to this woman, a willingness to make herself vulnerable, that tells us she may have lost a battle—or turned a corner and won the grand prize of self-discovery.

In a kind of epilogue at the end of Certain Women—you couldn’t call it closure—Reichardt returns us briefly to each of the three women. They’re all still alone in one way or another, and we see them all engaged in feeding others. Have they experienced noble failure, despair, or hope for a bolder future? Whichever it is, Reichardt has turned the characters inside out for us; we’ve accompanied these uncertain women through something momentous. You can imagine your own ending, or agree that life is like that, only less so.

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