In Certain Women’s first frames, the Montana landscape stretches across the screen. Mountains loom in the background, fields sprawl below and a train speeds forward, inching closer with each passing second. Still, patient and unedited, it’s a scene-setting shot, placing Kelly Reichardt’s sixth feature within its chosen US state. It establishes the rural small-town locale, too. Running for nearly two minutes, this opening image also does something more crucial: surveying the space its characters will traverse, it gives the movie a clear sense of space, and not just physically.
Thanks to this carefully composed single shot, Reichardt gives Certain Women room to breathe. In the process, she foreshadows exactly what the film offers the women in its frames, with space, patience, attention, understanding, generosity and freedom lacking in their lives. That’s not a new approach for the writer, director and editor. In fact, it’s what makes her one of the best filmmakers working today. Across a career that started with 1994’s River of Grass, and has since spanned 2006’s Old Joy, 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff, 2013’s Night Moves and 2019’s First Cow, Reichardt has always championed stories and characters that cinema routinely overlooks. And, she has relayed such tales with unwavering empathy, truly seeing and accepting her protagonists and their plights as they are.
Before ten minutes have passed in Certain Women, the film makes this plain via an afternoon with attorney Laura Wells (Laura Dern). Her irate client Fuller (Jared Harris) refuses to listen to her advice regarding his workplace injury, including that he doesn’t have a case; however when she takes him to see a male colleague who delivers the same news, he immediately accepts his opinion. Then, as Laura sits in her car and reflects upon what’s just happened, Fuller barges in and demands a lift home. For the duration of their ride, he complains and threatens violence against his ex-colleagues, even as Laura repeatedly asks him to stop.
Laura and Fuller’s story doesn’t end there, but Certain Women has more tales to tell. A triptych adapted from Maile Meloy’s short story collections, the film interweaves Laura’s experiences with two others, each delving into the lives of women often disregarded by the world. As Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) and her husband Ryan (James LeGros) build a new home, Gina is constantly pushed aside — by Ryan as they parent their daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier), and by Albert (René Auberjonois), who they’re trying to purchase sandstone from. For rancher Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a surprise connection with young lawyer Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) finally makes her feel like she’s being seen. Indeed, it inspires her to take a class on school law, a topic she has no use for. But, while something lingers between the two women, it isn’t a magic fix for Jamie’s feelings of loneliness and isolation.
When Certain Women released in 2016, audiences took notice. It’s Reichardt’s best-performing film at the US box office to-date, a status that reflects its star-studded cast but also rewards the director’s distinctive perspective. The movie feels like a culmination of everything that Reichardt has continually done so well: exploring the lives of those usually ignored, honing in on everyday people and their problems, probing by peering, and knowing that the mere act of on-screen representation can be revelatory. That’s always been Reichardt’s approach, but Certain Women achieves it with such care, sincerity and empathy — and her trademark understatement — that it provides one of the best demonstrations possible of her filmmaking prowess.
Minimalism and naturalism with a poetic, understanding and clear-eyed purpose has always been Reichardt’s style, hailing back to her first film. With River of Grass, the director examines the malaise afflicting Florida residents Cozy (Lisa Bowman) and Lee Ray (Larry Fessenden), who cross paths at a bar. She’s a wife and mother yearning for more. He’s bored, full of bravado and — when they think they’ve shot someone — eager to become an outlaw. As conveyed via Cozy’s candid, lyrical narration, plus Reichardt’s eye for realistic yet expressive imagery, this is a tale of two people carving out whatever space they can in an unwelcoming world while navigating their flukes, mistakes and flailing fantasies.
A road movie, love story and crime film, River of Grass subverts its multiple genres. No one travels far, romance is tenuous and the central crime isn’t what it seems. Twelve years latter, Reichardt’s sophomore feature subverted expectations in a different way. Following friends Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London) as they camp in Oregon’s Cascade mountains, Old Joy finds intimacy by giving its central duo room to work through their respective troubles, ponder the paths their lives have taken and face the distance in their friendship. For much of its duration, it simply observes as they drive, sit, walk through greenery and talk about nothing while touching upon everything. In fact, it places viewers in the same spot as Mark’s (and Reichardt’s) dog Lucy, tagging along as the two men confront their melancholy.
Both Lucy and a feeling of pensive, existential sorrow return in Reichardt’s third feature, with the filmmaker unpacking another kind of relationship. River of Grass delved into romance, Old Joy explored friendship, and Wendy and Lucy embraces the companionship between a young woman (Michelle Williams) and her beloved canine. The pair is also travelling, driving to Alaska via Oregon. But staying together for the journey proves as difficult as actually making the journey — thanks to a broken-down car, lacking funds and legal woes after Wendy shoplifts dog food. Reichardt’s most heartbreaking film, as well as one that stares resolutely at life on the margins, it’s also a piercingly astute examination of the bond between a person and their pet, the love that springs, and the hope and purpose it can evoke.
Accordingly, long before Certain Women showed Reichardt’s commitment to excavating and interrogating lives usually pushed out of view — and doing so in an open, tender and kind-hearted way — River of Grass, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy got there first. That’s a trend that western Meek’s Cutoff continued, with Williams returning as a pioneer-era wife weathering a trek across the Oregon High Desert that extends far beyond initial plans. More innately dramatic than her preceding films, it’s nonetheless a classic Reichardt movie, notably in its concern for fraught power dynamics, relationships put to the test and characters not often foregrounded in the genre. Also pivotal: the contemplative pace and tone, giving life-or-death stakes and the frontier journey both time and space to establish their weight.
When Night Moves arrived next, the tense drama about environmental activists blowing up a dam seemed a departure. But the Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard-starring movie shows how the director’s trademarks can make an impact in an array of ways, including in a film about people trying to make a stand then facing the fallout. A character-driven thriller, it’s another Reichardt feature that favours those normally on the sidelines with a ruminative eye. But, as Night Moves sees its characters for who they are, it never glosses over their tussles and flaws. As forthright a film as exists on her resume, it’s also another of Reichardt’s musings on choices and consequences, a subject that’s present in all of her work.
If Certain Women didn’t sit between them, First Cow might appear a strange leap from Night Moves, too. But both share a heist mentality, swapping eco-terrorism for stealing milk. They also share enterprising protagonists, a fascination with those following their hearts, and a thorough reassessment of the American dream, its meaning and its accessibility to the masses. The setup: in a 19th-century Oregon fur-trapper community, outcasts Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee) — a cook and a Chinese entrepreneur — start whipping up biscuits made with milk pilfered from the only local cow, which is the pride and joy of the Chief Factor (Toby Jones). The sneaky business move sparks profit and popularity, as well as peril.
Where Night Moves used its premise to examine its characters’ actions, motivations and decisions — and the conflicting influences that shape them — the sublimely affectionate and affecting First Cow ponders friendship, trying to claim one’s own space and finding a way to survive on the margins. They’re all familiar Reichardt themes, as has well been confirmed by this point in her career; however, no matter how many times she does so, no one explores this territory in the same fashion.
No one so thoughtfully and purposefully peers at the otherwise ignored. No one relays their tales so lovingly yet naturalistically, or lays bare their struggles with such care, devotion and honesty. Indeed, there’s no mistaking Reichardt’s films for anyone else’s, because no one gives their characters such room, space and time narratively, visually and emotionally — or, as has proven true from River of Grass to Certain Women and beyond, ensures that audiences truly see and feel every single moment.
Watch Certain Women
Tuesday 7 July, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies
Wednesday 8 July, 2:15am & 11:45pm on SBS World Movies
Now streaming at SBS On Demand: