Notable Festivals: Sundance
Inducted into the Criterion Collection: 2017
As an ideological or sociological construct, The West looms large over the American psyche. Far more than a physical, geographical region, it has come to represent a state of being that embodies our foundational values: freedom, fortitude, and persistence. Ever since the film industry dropped into California to escape Thomas Edison’s tyrannical enforcement of his cinematograph patent, this mythical land of cowboys, natives, and pioneers has figured prominently within the medium of cinema. While we’ve long regarded The West as a place of reinvention where one can build a better life, the economic policies of the late twentieth century have made that dream all but impossible for most. The creeping isolation of our social media-obsessed, hyper-connected lifestyles has compounded this new reality, creating a paradox in which endless open skies become suffocating ceilings, pushing relentlessly downward onto the horizon.
Director Kelly Reichardt understands the self-defeating consequences of our national attachment to pioneer myths, bringing her cutting insights and quiet compassion to bear on a handful of features about regular folks marginalized by their own environment. Until presently, the stage of play had been the soggy forests and arid desert scrub of Oregon, the destination point of our westward expansion. Over the course of four films — OLD JOY (2006), WENDY AND LUCY (2008), MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010) and NIGHT MOVES (2013) — Reichardt has drilled down into the fallacies of the Western narrative, exploring the emotional and psychological fallout that occurs when destiny fails to manifest; when the political interests of the elite few subvert the well-being of the honest, hard-working masses who wish to simply keep to themselves as they pursue their own modest vision of life, liberty & happiness. Oregon may be a large state, but it’s not so large as to sustain a lifetime’s worth of creative exploration. Indeed, after the completion of NIGHT MOVES, Reichardt felt that she had sufficiently “shot out” the Beaver State, and began looking towards alternate vistas as the backdrop for fresh inspiration and a rededication to aesthetic minimalism.
Reichardt would find this fresh backdrop in the state of Montana— more specifically, in the vision of Montana as rendered in the prose of author Maile Meloy. Until this point, Reichardt and Portland-based novelist Jonathan Raymond had been inseparable collaborators, but Meloy’s ruggedly delicate voice seemed to suggest that Raymond wasn’t the only one plugged into Reichard’s artistic interests. After reading Meloy’s various collections of short stories, Reichardt found herself drawn to three in particular, and began the tricky process of adapting them to screen without the benefit of a writing partner (perhaps in deference to her relationship with Raymond). The end result — 2016’s CERTAIN WOMEN — would mark a dramatic leap forward in her artistic development, subsequently revitalizing her position at the forefront of American independent cinema with a soft-spoken, yet incisive, triptych about the sociological fallout that still lingers a century after the closing of the frontier.
The quaint small town of Livingston serves as something of the capital of CERTAIN WOMEN’s emotional geography; it is a hub that connects the disparate narrative strands, if only through psychological means rather than physical. Like many small cities in rural America, the fundamental makeup of Livingston’s character is changing, having undergone a cultural renaissance as the creative class and families alike remake it to better resemble the hip urban centers whose high cost of living they fled to escape. One might call it gentrification, although the displacement occurring here is — for now, anyway — mostly existential. CERTAIN WOMEN cuts a wide swath through this setting to arrive at a cross-section of its distinct economic classes. Rich, poor, or everything in-between, it seems nobody is spared by the ennui that occurs when modernity intrudes on a community otherwise removed from time.
The film’s first section features Laura Dern as Laura, an aggrieved Livingston lawyer battling the below-grade misogyny of a client who doesn’t accept her evaluation regarding the merits of his workplace injury case until he hears it from a male consultant. Jared Harris plays Fuller, the said client, as emblematic of the perceived victimhood of the rural white working class, masking his inability or unwillingness to adapt to a world he no longer recognizes with a stubborn, unbending, and exclusionary pride. Harris’ sense of victimhood stems what he views as a bureaucratic injustice perpetrated by uncaring corporate interests, even though the insurance papers he signed clearly state that he forfeits his right to sue for additional damages the moment he accepts his workman’s comp. His world now in shambles, Fuller lashes out with the only action he feels will finally make him heard: breaking into his former employer’s office with a rifle and holding a security guard as his hostage. It falls to Laura to enter the building and defuse the situation, leading to a moment of wounded understanding between two exhausted people, worn out by swimming upstream all their lives. Dern‘s lived-in performance brings it home, emerging in Fuller’s eyes as the lone voice of reason in a world gone mad. Her wary empathy speaks to the profound truth behind this vignette: we dismiss the maladies of the working class at our own peril— not just because they might seek refuge in desperate, violent acts, but also because the cancers of late capitalism will inevitably metastasize to consume the middle class, too.
CERTAIN WOMEN’s second story finds Reichardt once again collaborating with Michelle Williams, who had previously delivered indelible performances for the director in WENDY AND LUCY and MEEK’S CUTOFF. Williams’ Gina is cut from an entirely different cloth from those characters, illustrating the particular travails of Montana’s privileged class. She, her rebellious teenage daughter, and her husband, Ryan (James Le Gros), seem to live an idyllic life of rustic comfort; they’re currently building their dream home, and on the weekends they voluntarily choose to “rough it” in a surprisingly-lavish tent on the land they’ve bought, complete with a television and a queen bed frame. Of course, money can’t buy happiness, and each spouse has their own secret coping mechanism— cigarettes for Gina, an affair in the city with Dern’s character for Ryan. In a narrative conceit so wispy and interior it would barely even qualify as “narrative” to most audiences, Gina attempts to sort out her ennui by fixating on a pile of sandstone that an elderly neighbor has accumulated on his front lawn. This isn’t any old sandstone, however— this is authentic sandstone from pioneer days, and nothing less will do when it comes to the materials that will make up their new dream home. The neighbor ultimately agrees to give it to her, but not without initially exhibiting some resistance. This instills a twinge of guilt on Gina’s part, making for a hollow victory that forces her, if only for a brief moment, to consider the emotional costs of her crusade for material perfection. There’s not enough sandstone in Montana to imbue her marriage with the same authenticity she seeks for her home.
Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart feature in CERTAIN WOMEN’s third story, which concerns the rather awkward, heavily one-sided friendship between a lonely rancher and a beaten-down night school teacher. Gladstone delivers a resonant, if subdued, breakout performance as the rancher, who spends her days working in total isolation save for the ranch’s horses and a couple dogs. On a lark, she follows a group of people inside a local school and unwittingly sits down to a continued education course on teaching for working instructors. The class is taught by Stewart’s Elizabeth Travis, who shuffles in looking frazzled and preoccupied, and proceeds to address the class with a fumbling incompetence. She’s a recent teaching graduate herself, and this is her first class; she’s so anxious that she has to speak from a stack of pre-prepared notecards. The rancher finds herself oddly enchanted by the gangly, pale Elizabeth, and invites her out to a nearby diner afterwards, where she learns that Elizabeth lives four hours away in Livingston and has taken on the staggering commute despite already working a full-time gig in the city. In an inspired casting choice, Stewart uses her slouchy frame and weary gaze to her advantage, evidencing a profound wariness of the rancher’s gentle, if obsessive, kindness. Reichardt implies a romantic bent to the rancher’s overtures (Meloy’s original story cast the character as a man), but roots it in a sweet innocence— she’s just looking for a friend, whatever form that might take. The comparatively-urban Elizabeth, on the other hand, defaults to a lack of interest, if not a profound distrust, of strangers; besides, there’s no time for friends when you’re barely scraping by. Their unlikely friendship exists in a bubble, floating within the confines of the classroom and the diner. This bubble pops when the rancher, upon hearing of Elizabeth’s resignation from the night school gig, takes the bold step of driving down to Livingston to visit her unannounced. The resulting display of one-sided, unrequited interest, while supremely awkward to witness, serves to reinforce the special aura of the moments they shared in the diner— moments that Elizabeth is likely to soon forget while the rancher will treasure them forever.
After dipping her toe into the waters of digital filmmaking with NIGHT MOVES, CERTAIN WOMEN finds Reichardt rededicating herself anew to the warm grit of Super 16mm celluloid. Working once again with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, Reichardt leans into the earthy grain inherent to her format of choice. There’s a distinct weight to every 1.85:1 frame, rendered in gloomy autumnal light that casts a somber glow over minimalistic yet thoroughly-considered compositions. Observant, patient camerawork takes on something of a painterly quality, especially in wide landscape shots that dwarf any human figures therein. From the early image of Dern and Le Gros’ characters getting dressed in separate, non-adjoining rooms after their illicit tryst, to the closing one of the rancher quietly going about her work, each frame is designed to emphasize the claustrophobic loneliness of the former frontier. Big Sky Country isn’t liberating so much as it is constricting, with the weight of a sprawling horizon bearing down on inhabitants who are too busy making ends meet to absorb the rugged beauty that surrounds them. Returning composer Jeff Grace echoes this sentiment with his spare original score, limited almost exclusively to the strumming of a melancholy guitar during the end credits. Reichardt’s decision to forego score for the bulk of her edit reinforces the dull ache at the heart of CERTAIN WOMEN’s story— there is no respite from the cold grind on display, dramatic or otherwise. There is only the brutal beauty and weathered grit of hard country.
In many ways, CERTAIN WOMEN plays like a definitive work within Reichardt’s career, optimizing the strengths of her particular artistic voice. Her core support system remains intact, boasting the participation of longtime producing partners Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani and executive producers Larry Fessenden and Todd Haynes. Bolstered by the kind of creative symbiosis that’s fostered over five films and two decades, Reichardt confidently deploys her spare aesthetic towards the further deconstruction of blue-collar Americana’s mythmaking. Rooting our perspective on the sidelines of mainstream society is critical in this regard. It’s tempting to label Reichardt as a feminist filmmaker on account that she is a woman herself who makes art sympathetic to that aim, but upon closer inspection one might recognize the broader humanist bent of her worldview— although it does suggest something rather profound about the state of American sexual politics that the exploration of marginalized populations often requires a feminine paradigm. Rural communities tend to reinforce this dynamic, driven by conservative ideologies that celebrate the domestic traditions of womanhood at the inadvertent expense of a fuller personhood. CERTAIN WOMEN certainly nails this conceit in regards to the central characters played by Dern, Stewart, and Gladstone (and to a lesser extent, the more-liberated Williams), but Reichardt’s political sensitivities allow her to sketch a much broader picture with the slightest of strokes. Even seemingly-throwaway shots — like a pair of Native Americans from the nearby reservation, decked out in full traditional regalia while ordering Chinese from a mall food court, or Gladstone’s character wandering the lively streets of Livingston after dark and looking in on a boozy economic prosperity she’s been locked out of — resonate with a profound understanding of the constant friction between the classes. CERTAIN WOMEN speaks to the hard truth at the core of Reichardt’s artistic agenda: the celebrated “timelessness” of rural, blue collar America is rapidly eroding, consigned to the reliquaries of the 20th century in the wake of globalization, industrial automation, and runaway income inequality decimating the middle class. The promise of the American dream has been replaced by the cruel reality that it is no longer available to all.
The aura of melancholy surrounding CERTAIN WOMEN only deepens as the credits roll, with a dedication to Reichardt’s beloved, now-departed dog Lucy. One gets the sense that this is a major development in Reichardt’s career— after all, Lucy’s carefree, loping gait had been such a charming and integral aspect of both OLD JOY and WENDY AND LUCY. Indeed, CERTAIN WOMEN clearly marks the beginning of a new chapter for Reichardt. The first film of hers to return to Sundance since her debut with RIVER OF GRASS, CERTAIN WOMEN also stands as the first of Reichardt’s films to crack $1 million at the box office (it’s almost inconceivable that Reichardt’s profile is so high when her films financially perform so low, but that’s a conundrum better left to the bean counters— we should be grateful that art is so clearly prevailing over commerce). Despite the clear line of stylistic continuity running through her earlier work to now, CERTAIN WOMEN nonetheless feels different: more assured, more mature. Granted, her work has always felt mature, but now Reichardt seems to be refining her artistic persona with the weathered patina one typically accumulates over the span of a lifetime. As such, her films are older & wiser — but their politics haven’t strayed from her progressive roots, even as she masters the cinematic capture of rural, working-class American’s heart and soul. Her unique strain of soulful, gritty sensitivity is set to continue— at current, she’s working on a new film called FIRST COW, which reportedly will see Reichardt return once more to her (and my) beloved Oregon. Doggedly independent to the very last, Reichardt stands poised to further bridge the emotional divide between Blue and Red ideologies during a time of great communication breakdown. In the process, she’ll undoubtedly continue to carve out her growing legacy as a soft-spoken storyteller whose voice nonetheless reverberates across the cinematic landscape.
CERTAIN WOMEN is currently available on high-definition Blu Ray via the Criterion Collection.
Written by: Kelly Reichardt
Produced by: Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani, Vincent Savino
Director of Photography: Christopher Blauvelt
Production Designer: Anthony Gasparro
Edited by: Kelly Reichardt
Music by: Jeff Grace