I have a great challenge ahead of me. I’ve been tasked to review a motion picture called “Certain Women.” It is a challenge because I must do its poetry justice without peddling the same writerly clichés about what’ll make it “zing” with art-house audiences and critics. It’s clear that it will become a canonical film: watched over and over again, studied at school, pored over for its tough-and-total understanding of drab folk in a drab world. It requires work from the viewer, as should any challenging work of art. Certainly it will make top-10 lists — but what the hell will that matter in 10, five, even two years from now? What makes “Certain Women” stand out from its equally admirable American indie brethren?
Facts: “Certain Women” stars Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and newcomer Lily Gladstone. It is adapted by director Kelly Reichardt from three short stories by the writer Maile Meloy: “Tome,” “Native Sandstone” and “Travis, B.” (all recommended reading). Both of their styles can generally be described as “minimalist” and “stripped-down.” All the stories revolve around the lives of wayward women in Livingston, Montana. The first story (“Tome”) stars Laura Dern as a lawyer who must defuse a hostage situation involving her disgruntled client (Jared Harris), a disabled worker who feels he’s been robbed out of his worker’s compensation. The second story (“Native Sandstone”) stars Michelle Williams as a woman who, with her husband, visits a senile old man named Albert (Altman regular Rene Auberjonois), trying to persuade him to give up the Native American sandstone in his front yard for a home the Williams couple is building. The third story (“Travis, B.”) stars Lily Gladstone as a nameless rancher who meets a sullen lawyer (Kristen Stewart). The rancher spends her days alone, tending her horses and Zamboniïng her snowy acres in a Chantal Akerman trance. The only release is when the rancher goes into town every night to hear this droopy-eyed drifter passionlessly teach classes on education law, for Montanan teachers who only care about whether their tenure pensions are secure.
For starters, “Certain Women” is a miracle of setting. Like all Reichardt’s works (“Meek’s Cutoff” and “River of Grass” foreground the place in their very titles), it refuses to leave a mountain, river, suburban-house hanging in the background like forgotten laundry on a clothesline. To Reichardt, settings actively sculpt the characters into place; they must channel all their energies, or lack thereof, into the never-changing person. Reichardt always leans towards swirling-still landscapes — the Florida sun that makes you feel stupid and sleepy, the Oregon desert with scorching-hot winds of a “Meek’s Cutoff” pioneer’s trek, a willow tree or field of okra that leads you to your soul.
In “Certain Women”, Montana is imagined by Reichardt as yet another active landscape which fucks people over in a subtle cycle of monotony. Reichardt’s Livingston is a cumbersome sea of blurry browns and morose maroons. This intense lack of color range drives the ennui that bogs down loners like Lily Gladstone’s rancher and Williams’ disrespected mom, who get locked into a repeating Flintstones rhythm of law firm/law firm/medical office/supermarket/law firm — buildings with strict, linear interiors. Sometimes, the strict, linear interiors of the blocky Livingston architecture get disrupted by jags, curves, interesting squiggles: a drooping branch, a twisting highway that looks like something out of Bob Frank’s “The Americans.”
It’s all to remind us that the majority of our lives are spent just waiting for something even remotely exciting to happen. Reichardt thus restores the sanctity of the pauses in time we forget about when doing busywork, the many hours squandered avoiding love and friendship when it would be easier to just blindly pursue it in a moment of impulsiveness. Sadly, nobody seems to be able to do this in “Certain Women.” Hesitancy and fear (“What if I don’t rat on the disabled worker?”, “What if I do tell her that she means more to me than she could ever know?”) keep people from achieving their suppressed desires.
There are too many breathtaking moments of perception in “Certain Women” to count. For starters, there’s this wonderful shot at the beginning that tells everything we need to know about Laura Dern’s stuck-in-a-rut lawyer, plagued by listlessness and sexism. Reichardt half-reappropriates the famous leg shot from “The Graduate” in one shot of Dern and her morning-after lover wordlessly changing into their work clothes. In the reimagining of that famously cartoonish-erotic moment (here, the sexiness of movie sex is sapped totally), the disrupting Mrs. Robinson leg is a block of Montana wall wood. It divides the two lovers: Dern unromantically pulling up her black stockings on screen left and the rather plump man on screen right, whose white shirt is too small and whose too-tight slacks barely fit over his naked ass. They mumble, not whisper, bitter nothings to each other from across the cold, Montanan wooden floorboards. Already we’re transported into a devastating moment, one which shows alienation-separation-distance in one dynamic, always-flowing image. The image never bores, since Reichardt never confuses “depicting emotional detachment” with “making an emotionally detached film.” By doing the former, she achieves the opposite of the latter, with the net result being a movie whose center is a melancholic 21st-century America.
Quiet-bravado acting is a big item in a Reichardt picture. Reactions play out in real time. Reichardt’s penchant for un-declamatory long takes (usually 10 to 30 seconds long) means that she has a much better sense of internal acting flow than most of her contemporaries, to whom the idea of sustainment and preservation of flow is foreign and boring. To them, the goal is a stylistically and artistically drab point-and-shoot that only cares about who is talking, never about how the other person might be reacting.
By contrast, a pretty common Reichardt scenario involves three characters in dispassionate, even passive-aggressive dialogue, with the camera fixed on the two non-talking people. Our attentions will drift between the Michelle Williams mother and her daughter, both equally grounded and steely. A good example is when the daughter refuses to help the mother pack up the family’s camping gear. Mom: “Thanks for helping.” Daughter, texting on phone: “No one asked me.” Mom: “No one asked me, too. Just had to figure it all out by myself.”
Later, when Mom leaves the car and Dad enters, he whispers to the daughter, “Be nice to your mother today.” She just nods her head as she continues texting like she did with Mom. Here, she reveals herself to be not so much a daddy’s girl as a Facebook girl.
In both exchanges, Reichardt the director doesn’t emphasize anything. Her characters walk the line between smudgy sketch and bold-line, finished-form artwork. The attention to character is humanistic, always in love with people, even if their worlds are devoid of love.
She’s damn good with nailing stuck-in-a-loop monotony, best seen in the final episode, with the richly morose Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) and her Montana gal-pal (Lily Gladstone) as two friends who never tell each other how much they care for the other. Their story is the most heartbreaking stretch of melodrama that Reichardt has concocted since “Wendy and Lucy” (an emotionally brutal dog film with none of the cloying cheapness of “Marley and Me”).
Gladstone is a woman with feet planted on the mattress (patterned after the old man Albert), spending her days ranching and watching TV. She seems pretty content with that life — that is, until she runs into Kristen Stewart. Immediately, we see Kristen as the outsider teacher — lousy, stilted, unpassionate. In the company of Gladstone, this morose millennial suddenly comes alive with vivacious character details. We think “prissy” when Beth cuts her burger in half with a knife, dabbing her lips with a cheap napkin without taking out the fork-knife-paperband wrapped around it. We think “detached” when she unlocks her iPhone to check the time; she’s got to be heading back. Her deep mascara suggests an unconsciously Expressionist way of showing dog-tiredness, or someone who just powered through an all-nighter. Though Beth doesn’t know it yet, she comes alive with Lily Gladstone’s neo-Jeanne Dielman rancher Jamie, whose sense of character is even less visible and even more gripping than Stewart’s millennial shenanigans. Contrast the rancher’s sigh of contentment as she bites into a half-frozen White Castle slider at the supermarket, versus Beth’s rapidly-eaten and gingerly-cut diner burger that she barely has time to enjoy. There’s something one woman contains that the other woman needs: Beth needs to pace herself like slow Jamie, and Jamie could use Steel-Beth’s sense of go-get-’em initiative. Beth doesn’t take time to appreciate the moment, Jamie is stuck too much in routine ruts.
Soon, with more visits to the diner, Beth and Jamie ask each other why they are here, where they are going, what their aspirations are. The moments get more ominous, though: When the rancher wants to surprise city slicker Beth with her horse, she and the horse trot down yet another Bob Frank road with telephone poles arranged around the road like crucifixes forewarning of tragedy to come.
However, the catharsis of a Reichardt is never bloody and rarely “eventful,” in the conventional sense. Rather, her catharses are always steeped in quiet desperation, micro-madness. It occurs in “Certain Women,” in a single long take that stretches to what feels like five minutes of just Gladstone driving away from Stewart’s law office (which, by sheer coincidence, is the same town where Laura Dern works). Gladstone’s driving scene is emotionally scary for what it reveals of a person. Flashes of nakedness, betrayal, hurt, vulnerability, awkwardness, shame and stupefaction flash through the still face of Gladstone, who remains (throughout the scene) her own self. We attach a whole range of emotions — what must she be feeling? — and yet, it is totally to Gladstone’s testimony as an actor that she manages to channel all these emotions into one glacial All-Encompassing Expression.
Contact Carlos Valladares at [email protected].