08 Feb DVD of the Month – Certain Women (2016)
Certain Women (2016), Directed by Kelly, Reichardt – Staring Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Lily Gladstone
Certain Women, the latest film from Kelly Reichardt, opens with an approaching freight train making its way over the austere beauty of a Montana landscape; a grey, snow-etched mountain butte rises above the scrubbed desolation of winter. We hear wind – the sound of the immense sky – and the small ember glow of the coming train providing its distant call. As the opening credits appear and fade, the train approaches and passes under our watch, as unhurried and inevitable as the loss of time.
Director Reichardt has set the tone, one of muted longing, and holds it with effortless grace until her last story is told. Reichardt has often been called a minimalist, and this is certainly accurate as her dialogue is sparse, her scenes intimate and uncrowded – but never has the unadorned seemed so lush – the stoic so emotive.
Reichardt places her film in Livingston, Montana, a small, flat town surrounded by endless plains; and here she tells the story of three women:
Laura (Laura Dern), a lawyer trying to provide the raw-boned denizens of Livingston a safe harbor from the litigious machinations of “the law.” Gina (Michelle Williams), mother of a family struggling on the fringes of dysfunction, determined to build them a new house as a way of pressing the reset button; and a women identified only as “the rancher” (Lily Gladstone); a tender of horses, who is as quiet, powerful – and somehow nobly lonely – as the magnificent animals she endlessly brushes and feeds.
The performances throughout are outstanding. Laura Dern dominates in her usual fashion – not so much acting a character as living a life. We first see Laura in a scene of adultery (which we know as such at first glimpse). Laura, stretched out on a bed, dressed in a bra, watches a man dressing in a Spartan room. In the cloudy, winter light from a window, she appears as wane and beautiful as a Wyeth portrait. The two exchange idle talk as the man dresses, the standard “I should get back to work,” is spoken. The man buckles his belt, looks at Laura for a moment, and leaves without a goodbye. We see Laura’s face reflected in a small mirror on the wall, smiling. As we hear the door close, we see her smiling face framed in the small mirror. In the ensuing silence, we watch her smile fade.
The middle of the film is taken by Gina (Michelle Williams) whose husband, Ryan (James Le Gross), is Laura’s quiet lover from the previous scene. Gina is driven – driven in her workouts (we first see her returning from her jog), driven in the loveless way she insists on love, and driven to build the perfect home on the prairie. “Look,” says Ryan to his daughter, Guthrie (Sara Rodier), during a moment alone, “Let’s both make a real effort to be nice to your mother today.” “Why should we?” asks Guthrie with tone. Her father looks down, says softly, “because neither of us would do very well without her.”
The last exploration in the movie is of “the rancher” played by actress, Lily Gladstone, a native Montanan of Blackfeet and Cree ancestry. Gladstone is little known, and her performance is so understated and profound as to nearly establish a new philosophy of acting. The wide plain of her face, her large eyes, convey an isolation and heartbreak beyond tears, beyond – somehow – human loneliness. The heavy, solid strength of her body, always dressed in formless attire, seems apart from “us,” from the town, from people. She appears in an adult education class at a local high school one night. “Are you registered?” asks the teacher (Kristen Stewart), a young woman with whom the rancher will attempt friendship. “No,” she answers. “The door was just open.” Director Reichardt chooses to close her film with a long scene of Stewart working in her barn, methodically tending to the horses in the stalls as in some timeless ritual of love and care.
The smaller parts complete this picture, most notably Jared Harris as Fuller, a carpenter who has suffered a brain injury and has been cheated out of his due by the loops of a legal system he can no longer grasp. He has come to Laura’s legal counsel too late, and the sad crush he has on her only adds ennui to the story. Rene Auberjonois is superb as well in the small part of Albert, an aging senior no longer fully in his wits, who owns a large pile of rare cut limestone Gina has her sights on for her new home (to watch albert’s face as he watches his family’s limestone being trucked off is to absorb one of those unnoted moments wherein life crushes without fanfare, memory, or sympathy).
This is a perfectly cut film, no access, no filler. It is peopled with characters damaged, lonely, addled – wishing to be happy, not wishing to cause pain, hoping. People we recognize. The world and its harsh desolation has them, though; and the movement of the world is filled with inevitable weight, like a cargo train moving over the plains.