Kelly Reichardt’s cinema gives us slow, rich portraits of life’s daily rhythms, its frustrations and unresolved conflicts, its beauties and mysteries.
Certain Women, directed by Kelly Reichardt. At the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA
By Peg Aloi
For those who don’t necessarily go to the movies to be entertained, there are a myriad experiences and emotions awaiting them in the dark. Going to the movies can be titillating, to be sure, in the way that steamy love stories or terrifying thrillers can be. People love slasher films, crime dramas with car chases, superhero sagas, and frat boy comedies. But, apart from taking in an occasional documentary, how many of us go to the movies for an experience that is thoughtful, reflective, and cerebral? We’re conditioned to experience cinema as a visual and aural storytelling experience, usually consisting of a narrative that, if written competently, teases out just enough information to keep us interested in what happens next.
But what if what happens next isn’t the point? Kelly Reichardt’s films tell stories that aren’t dependent on jump scares, meet-cutes, or eleventh hour revelations. Wendy and Lucy stars Michelle Williams as a drifter whose life slowly unravels; her car dies, her dog is taken to the pound, her money runs out, her options dwindle, and her family offers no help or succor. One haunting motif that resonates after the film ends is the song she hums, somewhat out of tune, that is the Muzak melody played in the grocery store where she attempts to shoplift some high quality dog food for her mutt, Lucy, an act that accelerates her downward spiral.
In Meek’s Cutoff, a drama set in 1945, a band of Oregon settlers find themselves lost and no longer able to trust their guide. It’s not exactly a Western — there’s too little gunplay and standard machismo — and the presence of Michelle Williams as a feisty but pragmatic frontier wife lends a somewhat anachronistic feminist vibe. Still, the grueling days pile on challenges and hardships that gently push home the point that — without the earthy resilience of the women — the party would lose their bearings on all fronts. Meek’s Cutoff had a tepid showing at the box office, and its wordless scenes of mundane chores and lingering shots of sere landscapes may have been too banal even for arthouse viewers eager to embrace the Next Big Thing in cinema. But after years of over the top CGI effects and glitzy superhero blockbusters, isn’t cinema, aren’t we, ready for something subtle and human?
Reichardt seems uninterested in whether her films captivate audiences or distributors; she has stories to tell and assembles competent crews and casts to make them happen. These stories are women’s stories, and in her seventh feature, Reichardt refines her vision with stunning clarity. Certain Women is ostensibly a series of vignettes about three Montana women whose lives are loosely linked. The first is a lawyer, Laura (Laura Dern) whose pesky client (Jared Harris) is good-natured but unraveling. His behavior becomes increasingly erratic when she lets him know his personal injury suit has failed and he has no further recourse.
The second woman is Gina (Michelle Williams, clearly a favorite actress of Reichardt), as the head of a construction company whose ex-husband (who seems to be involved with Laura) is building her a house in the woods. Their daughter, a sullen teenager, causes up-front friction between them, but mostly its passive-aggression and remarks made under the breath. Gina’s inner life seems to reveal itself in odd moments: she sneaks a cigarette while out for a run, or her face takes on a serene look when she gazes on the house building site, outlined in red tape, planning, apparently, for a future that makes more sense than her present does.
In the third segment, a young Native American woman named Jamie (Lily Gladstone) works at a vigorous daily routine caring for the horses on a ranch whose owners are presumably vacationing some place warm for the winter. The neighboring town is tiny and her existence solitary. She wanders into a night class taught by Beth (Kristen Stewart), a young lawyer, and becomes quietly smitten with the stranger from a city four hours away. The two women eat at the local diner after class twice a week, and Jamie asks shy questions while Beth complains about her arduous commute. Jamie’s infatuation is not verbal or even physical, but her eyes have a penetrating yet gentle quality. She’s like a deer who comfortably lives in the forest but is skittish and confused among humans.
Gazes and gestures are not merely modes of expression for these women; they are crucial modes of communication, deftly employed to correlate and connect with other visual elements. When Gina and her ex-husband are driving and discussing plans to acquire some native sandstone from an old family friend who may be suffering mild dementia, the reflection of trees and mountain peaks on the car windows provide a majestic, sublime counterpoint to the intimate sound of their conversation. We know this juxtaposition means something, but Reichardt doesn’t hit us over the head with it, just lets it wash over us. A similar visually stunning moment occurs when Jamie says goodbye to Beth on their third or fourth diner meal; the women are standing close together between their cars, and Jamie takes hold of Beth’s green scarf, possibly inadvertently, possibly intentionally, and for a moment stands very close to her, and then moves ever so slightly closer, as they prepare to open their car doors. Beth drives off, and Jamie remains standing, her eyes reflecting the eldritch streetlights, moist and quavering, her unarticulated desire as palpable as a shiver.
Reichardt’s cinema gives us slow, rich portraits of life’s daily rhythms, its frustrations and unresolved conflicts, its beauties and mysteries. They command our attention but are never showy or manipulative. Certain Women’s sure-handedness mirrors the quiet competence of its protagonists, weathering trouble, forging ahead, getting stuff done.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online, and she writes a media blog for Patheos.com called The Witching Hour