A handful of intersecting lives across Montana. A lawyer tries to diffuse a hostage situation and calm her disgruntled client, who feels slighted by a workers’ compensation settlement. A married couple breaks ground on a new home but exposes marital fissures when they try to persuade an elderly man to sell his stockpile of sandstone. A ranch hand forms an attachment to a young lawyer, who inadvertently finds herself teaching a twice-weekly adult education class, four hours from her home.
Reviewed at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival: Kelly Reichardt’s work occupies and is preoccupied by the intersection of American lives and American landscapes. From her 2006 breakout Old Joy, which follows an Oregon trek undertaken by two old, estranged friends, through Meek’s Cutoff, a pioneer tale, she has explored, among other things, the phenomenon of rather small, individual lives set against epic, almost mythological landscapes. The sense of toil and of ambivalence that attends her best films derives from the strain on her characters of this contrast, the exhilaration of their freedom but also the burden of its expanse, the notion of their own insignificance, of an unfair fight.
In Certain Women, a triptych she adapted from three short stories in Maile Meloy’s collection 'Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It', Reichardt operates as usual a specific sort of advocate for her characters, applying close, sustained, and considered attention to their predicaments, and in the process evening the balance of the individual with her surroundings. The film comprises character studies of four women with only very loosely intersecting lives; they all live in Montana, some closer to the hub of Livingston than others. They all work, and are shown working; clearly drawn to the particularities of the intersection between women and labour, Reichardt is more interested in the ways each character confronts a moment of aloneness with the larger work that is her life.
The film opens with a glancing portrait of Laura (Laura Dern), a small town lawyer. Returning from a lunchtime tryst with her married lover (James LeGros) to her office, Laura finds a persistent and perhaps unhinged client named Fuller (Jared Harris), an injured construction worker who refuses to accept that he no longer holds a claim against his former employer. A second opinion from an older, male lawyer appears to satisfy Fuller, to Dern’s chagrin (“It would be so lovely to think that if I were a man people would listen and say ‘okay.’ It would be so restful,” she says). But an armed hostage situation ensues, and a group of (male) police officers hustle Dern into the centre of it.
Reichardt manages to keep the emotional focus on Laura, and her frustration with what appears to be her lot as a professional and as a woman—a constant negotiation with the line between kindness and passivity. There is a claustrophobic quality to her segment, a sense of someone in a low-grade but constant state of danger. Dern plays Laura’s exhaustion as a sort of state of being; part of what tires her is the surprise and confusion that life should be limited in this particular way. Laura’s awkward parting with LeGros is as close as Reichardt gets to backstory. Though less effusive and lyrical than Terrence Malick, Reichardt is similarly enamoured with the enigmatic moment. In Certain Women she lingers over enough of them that a sense of interior expanse begins to cohere, more potent and specific, somehow, for its vastness.
Married to the LeGros character, Gina (Michelle Williams) appears imported from New York City, in her black tights, designer hiking boots, and expertly styled layers. Gina appears alone within her family, cajoled and undermined by her husband and scorned by her teenaged daughter (Sara Rodier). Her determination to build the perfect rural family home with perfect, “authentic,” locally sourced materials puts her at the mercy of an old family friend (Rene Auberjonois) with a pile of pioneer-era sandstone on his massive property. Gina’s is both the most complicated and least substantial of the three studies; Williams is an excellent conduit for Gina’s lonely, quicksilver temperament, one moment steely and acquisitive, the next wounded and belittled. But her predicament feels underexplored, too rich to fit into Reichardt’s template. Gina’s complications outpace the film’s terms.
The Montana authenticity Gina seems desperate to acquire finds a persuasive form in Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a young horse rancher dedicated to the rhythms of her work but desolate by day’s end. Her boredom draws her into a local night class (on school law, of all things) taught by budding lawyer Beth (Kristen Stewart). Jamie’s attachment to Beth may or may not be romantic, and culminates in a grand gesture that—similar to Laura’s brief stint as a hostage—ends without ceremony. Gladstone is luminous as Jamie, inhabiting a mix of longing and eagerness whose implosion plays across her face in the film’s attenuated final scene.
Numerous times in Certain Women, Reichardt shows us characters through windows—usually car windows—their features overlaid by the reflection of a wide, formidable landscape. Cars feature prominently, actually. The women drive and are carried by them, solitary figures traversing an indifferent field of space. They appear still and ambivalent behind the reflection of a world of possibility and pressure, overwhelmed and ennobled at once. The world is bigger, of course, it spans ever farther; the inherent power of the human face pushes back.
Watch 'Certain Women'
Tuesday 7 July, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies (now streaming at SBS On Demand)
Wednesday 8 July, 2:15am & 11:45pm on SBS World Movies
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Lily Gladstone
What's it about?
A handful of intersecting lives across Montana. A lawyer (Dern) tries to diffuse a hostage situation and calm her disgruntled client (Chernobyl's Jared Harris), who feels slighted by a workers’ compensation settlement. A married couple (Williams, James Le Gros) breaks ground on a new home but exposes marital fissures when they try to persuade an elderly man to sell his stockpile of sandstone. A ranch hand (Gladstone) forms an attachment to a young lawyer (Stewart), who inadvertently finds herself teaching a twice-weekly adult education class, four hours from her home. From acclaimed director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy & Lucy, Meek's Cutoff).