It has been an exciting couple of weeks in Sydney for fans of director Kelly Reichardt. Her first feature, River of Grass, screened in the Essential Independents festival in May, and her newest film, Certain Women, plays as part of the Official Competition at the Sydney Film Festival. River of Grass was a kind of fugitive romance in the style of Malick’s Badlands, darkly funny in the fact the protagonists were neither proper fugitives, nor properly in love. But stylistically it was a world away from the subdued naturalism with which Reichardt is now associated, and of which Certain Women is her most recent example. This new film is an adaptation of three short stories by Maile Meloy, all set in the home state of the Montana-born writer.1 “Restraint” is word often employed in praise of Meloy’s fiction, a quality that makes it peculiarly compatible with the understated work of this director. The promise of such a pairing is only increased by the impressive cast of women Reichardt has assembled – teaming up with Michelle Williams for their third collaboration, she is also joined by Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and exciting newcomer Lily Gladstone.2
The structure as well as the content of Certain Women derives from the form of the short story collection; comprised of three distinct sections that only really glance up against one another, it achieves a sense of cohesion through thematic resonance and shared setting rather than narrative overlap. And true to the short story form, each section of the film offers a slice of life depiction of its female protagonists. Laura (Dern) is a small claims lawyer in Livingston, who is struggling with a client (Jared Harris) who refuses to accept he has exhausted all the legal avenues of his workers compensation suit. Gina (Williams) is planning to build a second house with her husband (James Le Gros) outside of Livingston, and tries to convince ageing local Albert (Rene Aberjonois) to sell them a pile of old cut sandstone for its construction. On the other side of the state, a lonely ranch-hand, Jamie (Lily Gladstone), ventures into a nearby town one night. With nothing else to do, she follows a group of people into an adult-ed class, and is immediately enamored of its young teacher Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart).
As we might expect, Dern, Williams and Stewart do not disappoint in Certain Women, giving naturalistic performances that fit beautifully in Reichardt’s quiet film. Williams is particularly good as the most restrained and tense of the women, whose vulnerability only seems to surface in the furtive cigarettes she smokes while out running. And the only disappointing effect of the film’s tripartite structure is that Williams is not on screen for very long. Lily Gladstone, too, more than holds her own among the more experienced actors – she has an expressive face that proves highly affective in front of Reichardt’s lingering camera.
The director also demonstrates her usual attention to landscape in Certain Women, drawing its subdued palate from the stretches of sand-coloured grass and steely granite peaks of Montana, the so-called big sky state. The setting of these narratives represents a slight move inland for the director, many of whose previous films have been located in the pacific northwest state of Oregon. Shot on 16mm by Reichardt regular Christopher Blauvelt, it has a muted beauty. Blauvelt moves easily between wide-open spaces – like Gina’s property or Jamie’s ranch – and the claustrophobic interiors of cars. While the former serve to visualise the isolation and loneliness of the women, the latter suggest that even human proximity often fails to result in any real intimacy. Although the women live relatively comfortable lives, their world somehow seems as cold and desperate as that of the pioneers Reichardt depicted in Meek’s Cutoff.
Femininity emerges as a double-edged sword in the film; while it can invite intimacy, it also opens one up to the careless disregard or the trying dependency of others. Laura struggles against discreet but ingrained sexism, as her disgruntled client immediately capitulates to the second opinion of a male lawyer who only reaffirms her previous assertion that he has no claim. While it is clear that the client would never have bothered a man in the way he has Laura, this overfamiliarity is what finally enables her to offer the companionable support he seems to crave more than any legal resolution. Like the male lawyer, Gina’s husband is a man that other men trust. And yet he refuses to play the bad guy with either their sullen teenage daughter, or the old man Albert, leaving Gina to negotiate the awkward exchange over the sandstone by herself. In the final story, it is a woman who is rather careless of another woman, as the visiting teacher Beth is so caught up in her own problems that she does not really appear to see Jamie, or to recognise her feelings. Reichardt has made the interesting and modern choice to cast Jamie as a woman, when in Meloy’s text her character is a man named Chet. But she also leaves out the single act of explicit romantic contact between the pair in the short story, where Chet kisses Beth on the hand and cheek after their horse ride. While this deliberate introduction of ambiguity into their relationship could potentially risk undermining the transgressive effect of the change in gender, it does seem to frame Jamie’s story as a more universal yearning for human love and connection.
Indeed, Certain Women is far less interested in developing overarching ideas than it is in depicting the smaller moments of failed understanding or missed connection between individuals. In this respect, it is not dissimilar to another film in competition at the festival – Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World. And yet these two filmmakers could not approach said moments more differently; whereas Dolan works in the mode of extreme melodrama, often using swelling music and slow motion to convey moments of heightened emotion, Reichardt prefers to work with silence and duration to achieve a much quieter intensity of feeling. And in a rare instance of formal reflexivity, Reichardt seems to stage her rejection of melodrama in the altercation between Laura and her client, Fuller. After he takes her and a security guard hostage in a last-ditch protest against the injustice of his case, Fuller tells her to distract the police while he tries to escape. With his penchant for drama, he misguidedly believes Laura will play out this Hollywood cliché of Stockholm syndrome. But of course, she goes straight outside to tell the police where he is.
While this disavowal of the overtly dramatic and this attention to human failings might make Certain Women sound very bleak, these qualities are offset by the film’s more gentle moments. Reichardt’s unobtrusive and non-manipulative approach seems to avoid the worst hazards of sentimentality. As such it is always engaging when she turns her hand to more touching scenarios, as she does, for instance, with the story of a lost dog in Wendy and Lucy. In Certain Women, the final moments spent with a disappointed Jamie, or those between Laura and her client, seem to achieve a similar kind of tenderness, one that leaves the film feeling melancholy, but not entirely despairing.
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