There is an America largely unseen. It is ordinary, mundane. Peopled by a folk half-forgotten. Overseen by a pitiless beauty. It is the America of Edward Hopper, and Walker Evans, and of Kelly Reichardt. For years now, the director has been bearing witness to this place and its people, and telling their stories with her films. Like Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, Certain Women is another measured study of the quiet crises in the lives of marginalised Americans, in this case four women in rural and small town Montana.
Reichardt has taken three short stories from a collection by author Maile Meloy, and crafted them into a trio of loosely connected tales of women trying to make themselves heard in an indifferent America. She places these characters into situations of great personal difficulty, and then passively observes as they struggle to maintain their dignity. Peppered with irony and suffused with aching loneliness, it showcases the multitalented creator at the top of her game, controlling camera, sound, and actors with a masterful touch.
In the first segment, Laura Dern, in middle age now more glorious than ever, is a lawyer with the client from hell. Jared Harris is a hopeless case, in both the romantic and legal sense, unable to see that she does not love him, and unwilling to accept that his long-running personal injury case is similarly bound for failure. She is weary, exasperated with the men in her life who do not respect her. She is a goddess, unworshipped. Even a hostage situation can’t break the ordinariness for long.
Michelle Williams, one of cinema’s most compelling actors, is wife and boss to a man who is cheating on her, and mother to a daughter who shows her no love. She is building a house and part of it means negotiating the purchase of a pile of sandstone rubble from an elderly man who at best seems unsure of what to make of this strong and determined young woman. Watching her trying to keep it together as the old man practically ignores her and her husband undermines her is both pleasure and pain. The old man seems to be echoing the sentiments of those cold Blue Mountains that overlook everything; You do not matter.
In the final story, Lily Gladstone is an Indian horse rancher, in love with Kristen Stewart’s unslept night school law teacher. She says very little, but her huge, sad, expectant eyes are full of love; they do all the talking. At one point I began to wonder if she was a ghost; the phantom of America’s past, haunting the diners and laundromats of its present. Her performance is a revelation, and the film’s best moment is hers.
Despite the bleakness, this is far from a humourless film; I regularly found myself laughing at its many ironic situations. Harris’s wife leaves him for an ex-con, just as he himself is going to prison. Stewart knows nothing about employment law; every day she has to teach herself the subject in order to teach her students. Williams smokes a cigarette dressed head to toe in running gear. We’re supposed to acknowledge the absurdity of life. Sartre would have loved this film.
Another thread of existentialism weaved throughout is the struggle that these women face for satisfaction in a universe that is at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile. And they’re getting no help from the men in their lives. Dern’s client ignores her advice for eight months, and then when he gets a second opinion from her male colleague immediately accepts it. Williams’s husband is no help at all, and the old man with the sandstone passively-aggressively refuses to acknowledge her. What is the problem with these men? Are they intimidated by the strength of these women?
There is a feel of Annie Proulx about it, but this is not Brokeback Mountain. There is no melodrama here, just a weary acceptance of things. An inevitability like erosion, or time, inexorable. Events occur without fanfare, unfolding like crumpled balls of paper. Entropy. Slow, unstoppable change. And not-change. The unchanging America, the permanence of the landscape. The refusal to recognise the legitimacy of a woman. These are the forces at conflict here.
Yet there are no ‘movie moments’. Nobody explodes with rage. Nobody blurts, “I love you!”. Nevertheless there is rage, and there is love. Gallons of the stuff. But it is all flowing underground. You know it’s there, working its way through the bedrock of this place, through the bones of these people, but you will not see it. Feelings are left unspoken. Love is not reciprocated. A friendly wave goes unreturned. There is a sense here that the most important moment of your life can happen with only the merest hint of acknowledgment from the cosmos. Only you will know its significance.
In the end, satisfaction must be found where it can be got. A lunchtime fuck, a ride on horseback to a diner, a letter about nothing in particular; these are the moments that punctuate the torpor, alleviating the crushing ennui. Reichardt celebrates the beautiful ordinariness of this place and its people, and ensures that their passage does not go unnoticed. Hers is a voice that quietly demands to be heard.
Review by Matthew Blackwell
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