Is this the new feminist minimalism? Director Kelly Reichart doesn’t like labels, and to her credit as a woman director, her amalgam of three tangential short stories transcends the format in a studious, low-key way. Four interesting actresses present interesting portraits that illuminate the realities of life in the great Middle America.
The Criterion Collection 893
2016 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 107 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date September 19, 2017 39.95
Starring: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, Kristen Stewart, Jared Harris, James Le Gros, Rene Auberjonois.
Cinematography: Christopher Blauvelt
Film Editor: Kelly Reichardt
Original Music: Jeff Grace
Written by Kelly Reichardt from short stories by Maile Meloy
Produced by Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
One of the first things that the interesting director Kelly Reichardt says is that she’d like her movie to not be considered a ‘woman’s picture.’ We at first think she’s kidding herself, as the title Certain Women doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. The idea of adapting one or several short stories as a feature has been around a long time, with fairly successful modern examples being pictures by Robert Altman (Raymond Carver) and Pedro Almodóvar (Alice Munro). Ms. Reichardt’s style may be studiously anti-dramatic, but her episodes grow on one, and keep growing after the film is over. That’s when one realizes that this ‘women’s picture’ is actually a portrait of a country in crisis, a portrait much more subtle than the genre thriller Hell or High Water: folks out in the sticks today are not contented with the economic status quo, not one bit.
As a commercial art filmmaker Kelly Reichardt has found herself a good groove — established actresses looking for meaningful roles have hastened into her orbit. Adapting and assembling several short stories by author Maile Meloy, Reichardt has changed some locations and particulars, and even the sex of one character. Three basic stories take place in Montana, in and around the windy town of Livingston. In the first story attorney Laura Wells (Laura Dern) must deal with an unbalanced client. Woodworking artisan Will Fuller (Jared Harris of Mad Men) was injured on the job and is still suffering from brain damage — he sees double. Unfortunately, he took an early settlement from the contractor that now makes it impossible for him to sue. His wife has all but kicked him out and he’s leaning too heavily on Laura for support, becoming an emotional leech. Will is about to crack up and become violent, and there’s nothing Laura can do about it.
In the second only tangentially related story, a well-to do out of towner named Gina (Michelle Williams) is frustrated that she’s not getting the familial support from her laid-back husband Ryan (James Le Gros) and selfish brat of a daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier) that she needs to press forward with the second home they’re building here in Montana. The project of the day is to talk a retired local named Albert (Rene Auberjonois) into selling a quantity of sandstone blocks that have been lying inert on his property for fifty years. Albert offers to give them away, but only Gina is willing to indulge the lonely man’s need for a little conversation. Gina wants everything ‘just so’ and feels the need to connect with new people, but Guthrie is impossible and Ryan at his best is detached. Albert is already more than a little senile. He might be wondering if he’s talking to a new neighbor, or just a Slick Sally who wants something for nothing.
In the third story, an unnamed ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) is ‘wintering’ a horse ranch, house sitting and taking care of a barn of horses. The solitude is so acute that she drives once a week into the tiny cattle town to sit in on evening community college classes, just to be around people for a couple of hours. Our ranch hand likes the instructor of a class for teachers, law student Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart). After class, she shows Beth where the local diner is. Beth is not happy with the job. She has left college early in fear of amassing more debt than she can pay off. She’s working in a government office that has assigned her an awful job — in addition to her daily clerk duties, every Thursday she must drive from Livingston, a full four hours away, to teach this class. Clearly infatuated with Beth. the ranch hand rushes back to class every week, and even rides a horse in one night to show Beth what riding is like. The next week when she returns, the ranch hand discovers that Beth has found someone to take her place. The ranch hand immediately makes the long trip to Livingston herself, to try to find Beth.
Certain Women definitely uses a short-story, shorthand style to lay out its narratives. The episodes ignore commercial notions of pacing and ‘well rounded’ storytelling. Although everything we need to know is in place, we must interpret some of what we see without standard exposition or content signposts to tell us what’s important. Laura is first seen waking up with her lover; only later do we realize that the relationship must be illicit. The context of the landscape is often given equal emphasis to the characters, all of which are dominated by harsh economic conditions. Livingston is too small for Laura to avoid the persistent Will Fuller, who we know is grasping at any emotional straw available. Laura must play tough to avoid Will’s pitiful attempts to make her responsible for his unpleasant predicament.
Desperate to get attention, the pathetic Will Fuller propels himself into a foolish hostage situation. It’s not played for laughs even though his hostage, a security guard named Amituana (Joshua T. Fonokalafi), is a Samoan immigrant. The stinger comes later on, when Laura pays a visit to a prison and finds that the unhappy Fuller is still trying to exploit her. It’s the most feminist statement in the show. Fuller never took Laura’s legal advice seriously, yet he clearly expects her to fulfill a presumed womanly responsibility to be his caretaker, or mother. Laura simply has no response to offer.
The other two stories are mainly about emotional isolation. At first the interpersonal meetings seem innocuous, trivial, but as in a good short story, they grow on one. Gina is first seen ambling down a path in a fancy jogging outfit; this is apparently the clue that tells us that she’s perhaps a prosperous Californian seeking a trendy ‘perfect getaway’ house that might double as a retirement destination, or at least a good investment. Perhaps she’s into real estate? Just a house isn’t good enough for Gina, who concentrates on things like ‘historically significant building materials.’ The casual resistance Gina gets from Ryan and Guthrie is just upsetting enough to make her feel isolated.
As she’s the goal-oriented boss lady, Gina’s attempts to befriend the confused old neighbor Albert are dampened as well. Poor Albert’s alone, now that his wife is gone. Give him a chance and he’ll talk your ear off about things he can barely keep straight. The impact is subtle. When Albert has moments of clarity, he must feel like he’s one day closer to dying, with people already arriving to strip everything of value from him. What can Gina do? She knows that if she didn’t ask for the sandstone, somebody else would just come and grab it.
Gina has options in her life, but the horse ranch woman of the third story can do little to alleviate her loneliness. She talks to the horses but doesn’t bother with the ranch dog, a Corgi, who is seemingly around to keep the vermin population at bay. Blackfoot and Nez Perce actress Lily Gladstone isn’t identified as Native American per se, but she seems to have been raised in quiet, modest surroundings. We identify strongly with her solitude and her ability to contain her emotions. Without acting too needy, she listens eagerly to Beth’s personal problems. They have little in common, but the ranch hand woman tries to interest Beth with her experience with horses, injuries, etc.; is the ranch hand just hungry for friendship, or something more? We cringe when we realize that the frustrated law student is not going to reciprocate. Students often form crushes on their teachers, but our horse lady isn’t a real student, and Beth isn’t a real teacher.
Certain Women is going to reward moviegoers willing to invest the time and patience in a delicate story; the star-laden cast surely enabled the show to perform well for a micro-budgeted indie picture. True, it’s the kind of movie with a pace so deliberate that shots begin seconds before people enter, and linger even longer after people leave. It’s a largely snowless winter, with everyone bundled up. Gina eyes the distant mountains, surely thinking the thoughts a real estate person might think. Laura has to drive all the way back from a meeting tortured by Will’s selfish whining, so she can’t appreciate the scenery. The law student Beth is wrapped up in her own little world, trying to escape the fate of her sisters who have dead-ended in menial jobs. The ranch hand seems to be living a subsistence existence, alone and desperate for companionship.
That’s when the cumulative effect of Certain Women kicks in — it’s a series of impressions about how serious things are in this country for ordinary people caught in the modern money crunch. The frontier closed 125 years ago and the postwar boom has finally gone bust. The government long ago reneged on the social contract; whatever business interests are in charge are sucking what economic vitality remains from the landscape. ‘Loser’ Will Fuller becomes an infantile menace when things go wrong; his wife would rather run off with a paroled convict. The future is represented by the brat Guthrie, who takes her security and privileges for granted, and by Beth, who wants to better herself but is instead exploited by the system. The local teachers that attend her class would really like to ask her if their school district is cheating them out of fair pay or decent privileges. Everybody seems to be barely scraping by – the ranch hand doesn’t eat a hamburger in the café with Beth, but later purchases a much cheaper microwave burger in a gas station. I saw the ‘revenge of the dispossessed’ bandit fantasy Hell and High Water just after the last presidential election, and realized that its wall-to-wall images of bank repossessions was an excellent bellwether for why scared middle Americans could be made to vote against their own best interests. Certain Women is a more thoughtful image of what’s really happening to an awful lot of people out there. Lives are being quietly blighted not just by economics, but by conditions that keep us separated from one another. Those holding even a tiny piece of the pie are jealously on guard.
Moviegoers looking for story-driven character insights will find Certain Women something they can sink their teeth into. None of the actresses gets a free ride or even a glamorous showcase – the reality presented is one in which a warm down coat is more important than makeup. It’s hard to connect the Michelle Williams seen here with her turn as Marilyn Monroe. With her clear eyes and hopeful face, relative unknown Lily Gladstone makes just as strong an impression. The emphasis may not be on narrative flash, yet I found myself emotionally invested in the final story. When a vehicle leaves the road, its driver having fallen asleep, the movie’s hold on the audience is complete.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Certain Women is a beautiful digital transfer supervised by the filmmakers and given the label’s high quality audio presentation. This isn’t a picture with a lot of cuts, and the compositions by Reichardt and her cinematographer Christopher Blauveldt seem designed to encourage contemplation of the characters’ relationship to the landscape.
The extras are a trio of informative interviews, with director Reichardt, executive producer Todd Haynes and author Maile Meloy. We find out that Reichardt and her cameraman simply gravitated to Livingston, Montana as the right setting; her description of it still seems rather forbidding. The Ranch hand’s late night walk through downtown, looking through windows, is pretty amazing filmmaking. I believe that Reichardt also says that in Meloy’s original story the ranch hand was a man. Changing the sex makes a big difference to what might have seemed an unhealthy episode about a stalker. All three interviewees strike us as intelligent, vitally creative people, with Ms. Meloy coming off as an especially vibrant personality. The Montana setting made a difference to her too — she says that her stories fell into place when she relocated them from Oregon and elsewhere, to the Northern extremes.
Definitely up for discussion are the tiny ways that the three stories overlap — on my first pass I only found two connections, just one of which ‘colored’ my impression of the character relationships involved. I’ll leave them for viewers to discover on their own, and perhaps explain to me.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Interviews with director Reichardt, executive producer Todd Haynes and Maile Meloy, author of the stories on which the film is based; trailer, folding insert with an essay by critic Ella Taylor.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 23, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson