Certain Women ★★★★★

Certain Women by Kelly Reichardt


“The sun is actually coming through the heavy cloud cover as well […] a muzzy dot up in the sky. It's not giving any heat, that's for sure.”

According to actress Kristen Stewart American filmmaker Kelly Reichardt is one who “focuses on things that people don't typically look at”. In a way the occasional release of one of her films or of any other female director also shines a light on the sometime overlooked works of women working in the industry whether it is Reichardt, Alice Lowe (Prevenge), Anna Biller (The Love Witch) or Hope Dickson Leach (The Levelling). Merely judging from the quality of these works it should be no problem for these directors to find work within the film industry of their home country and yet finding financiers as well as the necessary trust in their projects is often a frustrating task. For Reichardt, who has been teaching classes in film production in between features to make a living, working independently and her gender have often led to these long delays while male directors such as Richard Linklater or Todd Haynes, the latter of which is now one of the producers behind Certain Women, could make a living with “personal films”.

However, despite her frustration Reichardt is not on to overly complain about these injustices, much like the women she portrays in her films like Rivers of Grass or Meek's Cutoff, but has found a way to live with it and still succeed in making her films the way she wants. The result is perhaps one of the most unique body of works in American film one which depicts the decline of the American Frontier, themes of gender as well as the economic and political crisis of the USA. Consequently, journalists like Eric Kohn or Ella Taylor have written essays on Reichhardt's work, its importance within the American film industry, it's contemporary themes as well as magnificent visuals, especially when it comes to the link between landscape and individual.

Certain Women, based on short stories by writer Maile Meloy, sees the return of some of those themes, the “transformation of landscape” (Taylor), the American Frontier and the position of women within a specific setting, in this case the icy fields and cities/towns of Montana. These three stories are about loneliness, relationships and about how silence can also be quite eloquent and telling.

In the first of three stories lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) who has to deal with a client, Mr Fuller (Jared Harris), who feels he has been betrayed by his former employers in a settlement after a work injury which has left him disabled and unable to continue any kind of work. Even though she has been telling him he has accepted the original sum he can not sue his former company for more money. After another lawyer has told Fuller the same facts he takes matters into his own hands.

Gina (Michelle Williams) and her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) have decided to build their own home using authentic materials. While Ryan and her struggle to find these and finally start construction tensions grows between the couple and their daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier). Hoping to buy off a pile of unused sandstone from one of their neighbors the trip there as well as the following negotiations reveal the growing gap between the two of them.

At last a rancher (Lily Gladstone) tries to find a diversion from her tough but lonely work in attending a class in school law at a night school given by Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart), a trained lawyer who has been given this assignment even though she lives four hours away from the school and has to get back to her real job in the morning. As weeks go by the rancher tries to make a connection to the young lawyer.

As Ella Taylor points out the title of the movie is paradoxical if one takes a closer look at the female protagonists of each of these stories, whether it is the lawyer or the rancher or the wife, because nothing is certain in a setting such as the one snowy, desolate plains showing mountains on the horizons, the unbridgeable, natural frontier for these characters. The opening shot shows a western-like wide shot of this landscape complete with the almost obligatory train passing through, a reminder of a world behind those snow-covered summits, however, one which feels unreachable given this constant feeling of distance, the memory of this frontier in every story we are about to see. This contrast of open landscapes in the tradition of the western-genre, the promise of possibility and adventure has found its way into the reality of shopping malls and two-bedroom apartments, one where the memory of the promise might still be there, of the distance between dream and reality. And even the concept of the dream has come into question considering the omnipresence of political and economic realities as suggested in the fate of characters like Fuller or Elizabeth.

Indeed the constant memory of the frontier has become a depressing, everyday reality in the lives of these four women as well as the other characters we see in the film. Consequently, this reality has set the geographical and emotional boundaries for people, it has become not only a physical truth but a psychological one too. Perhaps the best example is Lily Gladstone's character, a female version of the eternal archetype of the cowboy, a legend which has already seen its decline in recent American cinema considering works like the Coens' No Country for Old Men or David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water. Whereas the loneliness of the landscape had been an almost necessary asset in the myth-building of these characters its bleakness and silence have set the bars of an invisible prison without connection to other human beings. Living in isolation has defined the reality of living, of being, one which seeks an emotional connection and which has come be fine when this need is not met. Emotional borders, whatever they might be, have been accepted over time just like one has become used to the unforgiving landscape and the cold of the days.

One of the cleverest aspects of Certain Women is the use of space in connection with the characters. While the factor of landscape has already been mentioned the plot of the film changes repeatedly shows enclosed environments, like Laura's office, the tent Gina and her family live temporarily or the classroom and diner in which the rancher and Elizabeth meet. One the one hand many of these symbolize something typical American, everyday spaces, but none of them resembling something which might qualify as warm or home-like. Like the space one occupies at a parking lot, shopping mall or diner all of these spaces are either time-limited or unwelcoming, something which is for example visible in the uncomfortable gestures and facial expressions of Kristen Stewart's character when she enters the classroom and begin talking to the class. Coming back to the aspect of uncertainty the idea of home has also come under attack due to circumstances, impersonal due to their commercial or professional nature. It is therefore understandable why the sandstone of her neighbor has become more than just material, but literally another stone to build one's home in the second story.

At last, Kelly Reichardt's films can not be praised enough for their subtle performances, a quality inherent in the director's script as well as in the cast she assembles. While Michelle Williams has become something of a regular in her films ever since Wendy and Lucy (2008) Reichardt's film in particular show the amazing extent of her talent which is not so much about the big emotions but rather about subtle emotions like the scene when her character and her husband drive back home from her neighbor. It may take too long to analyze every performance here in greater detail but it is safe to say Certain Women is magnificent display of talent for all those involved. Apart from Laura Dern's heart-warming depiction of a woman torn between her own profession and showing humanity to an obviously emotionally hurt man Kristen Stewart shows an incredible talent for transformation in her role as bored lawyer who has to teach school law at night school. The bag of a sweater she wears while listlessly reading everything of her cue cards is as far away from the glamorous image of Hollywood as possible.

Certain Women is a subtle drama about women (and men) being captured within a bleak landscape, in relationships, professions and role models. Nothing is certain here, much like the countryside everything is out in the open for these characters, for their conflicts and their dreams. Supported by wonderful performances, great cinematography, direction, editing and writing one can only repeat the passionate appeal of Eric Kohn to appreciate films such as these much more.

Sources:
1) Kohn, Eric (2016) Kelly Reichardt Is One of the Best Filmmakers in America, And We Don't Appreciate Her Enough
www.indiewire.com/2016/10/kelly-reichardt-interview-certain-women-kristen-stewart-1201732899/, last accessed on: 11/05/2017
2) Dillard, Clayton (2016) Interview: Kelly Reichardt on Certain Women and the Politics of Anger
www.slantmagazine.com/features/article/interview-kelly-reichardt-on-certain-women-and-the-politics-of-anger, last accessed on: 11/05/2017
3) Taylor, Ella (2017) Trapped Under the Big Sky
4) An interview with Kelly Reichardt about the film's source material and motivation is part of the recent Blu-ray release of the film by Criterion.

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