The particular lives of ‘Certain Women’
Kelly Reichardt’s latest film is another quiet triumph
Kelly Reichardt makes films – six features so far – that are scrupulous, concise, and very, very quiet. She concentrates on the lives of ordinary Americans, mostly women, who come close to being undone by their circumstances, but there is nothing rough or disorderly about her cinematic style. Each shot is essential, every line of dialogue – and there aren’t many – earned. It would be easy to say that nothing happens in her films: two friends go camping (Old Joy, 2006); a young woman searches for her dog (Wendy and Lucy, 2008); a small group of frontier settlers may or may not be lost (Meek’s Cutoff, 2010). But for her characters, everything is at stake. Her films ache with the weight of emotional, and often material, loss.
Her latest, Certain Women, is a triptych. Its parts are connected by location more than by narrative, though there are tiny overlaps in character. The setting is mostly Livingston, Montana: a town ringed by dramatic snow-tipped mountains, and topped by a sky that is crushing in its vastness. In the film’s establishing shot a freight train moves gradually across the land, the sound of its horn troubling the air like the cry of a mournful creature. Human life seems small when measured against these surroundings – small but precious.
Laura (Laura Dern) is a suburban lawyer with a client who won’t listen to her advice. Gina (Michelle Williams) is married to Ryan (James Le Gros), and they’re building a new house, but they need to persuade an elderly man to sell them the sandstone that sits on his property. And an unnamed ranch hand, extraordinarily played by Montana-born newcomer Lily Gladstone, falls hard for a young, nervous night-class teacher named Beth (Kristen Stewart).
The three narratives, which are based on short stories by American writer Maile Meloy, are so pared back that to describe much more risks spoiling them. And what matters as you watch is not what’s going to happen but what is happening, moment by moment, as Reichardt – who directed, edited, and wrote the screenplay – accrues her telling details. She films faces as if they were landscapes, watching the weather that passes over them, and often at a slight remove: Laura’s face, reflected in a mirror, expectant but set as her lover leaves the room; Gina’s face, weary and closed, observed through a car window as the shadow of a mountain moves across it; Beth’s face, bashful in front of her students, and shot from the perspective of Gladstone’s ranch hand, who has no reason to sit in on night classes, but is too lonely not to.
It helps that Reichardt has cast actors capable of both utmost subtlety and acute feeling, often at the same time. Michelle Williams frequently collaborates with Reichardt, and played the lead roles in both Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff. She’s the kind of actor who leaves an impression even when she’s out of shot, which is appropriate, given that her character here, Gina, is in danger of being cast out of her own family. “Let’s you and I make an effort to be nice to your mom today,” says Ryan to the couple’s sullen teenage daughter, Guthrie (Sara Rodier). The condescension, and collusion, packed into that line tells you all you need to know about the paucity of love within this triangle.
All three stories involve some imbalance of need and attention. Laura’s client Fuller (Jared Harris) was injured at work and believes that his life is ruined, and while he sobs in her car she says nothing, having said all she can, though Dern in her silence conveys the precise point where sympathy meets exasperation. And the ranch hand, sitting opposite Beth at a late-night diner, radiates such loneliness that you want to reach through the screen and pull her close. Again, she says almost nothing, letting Beth fill the space with agitated chatter – Kristen Stewart herself is such a transparent performer that she’s a kind of human window, every flicker of thought and expression visible, and her ability is matched here, even surpassed, by Lily Gladstone. In one magnificent shot towards the film’s end, we watch Gladstone’s expression gradually change as the wild hope of infatuation gives way to reality, and it’s devastating.
Certain Women is a superb film, perhaps the best so far from one of America’s outstanding contemporary filmmakers. But the only places in Australia where you can see it this month are Melbourne’s ACMI and Sydney’s Golden Age Cinema, which are both committed to independent screen culture. That a filmmaker of Reichardt’s experience and skill – and with a film that features a bona fide Hollywood star, in the shape of Stewart – is still denied wider distribution of her work is a sad reflection upon the commercial homogeneity of our current cinema, particularly American cinema. Reichardt’s characters are not taken from comic books; they are not easy heroes or outsize villains. Her people are the kind who drive second-hand cars or catch the bus. Their lives might seem beyond their own ability to command, but they are not meaningless.
Anwen Crawford is the Monthly’s music critic and the author of Live Through This.