Film of the Week: Certain Women
In The Girl on the Train, the train in question sidles so slowly past a certain row of houses that it seems the journey has been specially timed to allow the film’s heroine to take a very close look at a particular place and particular events. They’re what’s happening in her world, and therefore they become, for the length of the film, the center of all events in the entire world. I remember a similar conceit in Bruno Dumont’s Humanity—although some irony was probably at work—which played with the preposterous idea that a traveler on the Eurostar train between London and Paris might just have spotted a murder taking place. As a regular user of that service, I can tell you that would never have happened: you’d be gazing numbly out at those flat Northern French landscapes in a state of trance, and you wouldn’t see a thing taking place outside.
It’s a fact of life, but rarely of cinema, that we hardly ever really see what’s happening outside the train we’re on—and you can take that literally or figuratively. At the very start of Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, a train passes through a flat, drab Montana landscape, with mountains in the background; throughout the film, the train rolls intermittently through this small world. We never sense the train arriving or leaving: it just glides through with blind indifference, and there’s no reason to think that anyone on board has the faintest awareness of what’s going on outside their window. Reichardt’s film is about three episodes—we can barely call them events, not in the usual momentous dramatic sense—in three lives lived in this territory, and you sense she could have told a thousand others. These are simply representative of all the stories we never even suspect when we’re in transit.
Reichardt tends to tell stories about events in the margins of life, although sometimes these are of major real-world import: the actions of green saboteurs in her last film Night Moves (13), or the tribulations of a lost pioneer contingent in her anti-epic Western Meek’s Cutoff (10). There’s one headline-news moment in Certain Women, involving a small-town hostage situation, but it’s told in such a minor key that its repercussions are more or less shrugged off before the sluggish routine of normality asserts itself. Certain Women may be Reichardt’s most low-key film since the intimate woman-and-dog story Wendy and Lucy (08) or even the philosophical rural ramble Old Joy (06); let’s say, its emotional rewards require a certain detached discernment in the viewer, just as readers have to bring an open sensibility to the recounting of apparent non-events in a certain tradition of modern North American realist short story. Based on stories by Montana-born writer Maile Meloy, the three independent but intersecting episodes of Certain Women are not so much slices of life as slivers of it, and it is left to us to imagine what kind of bigger loaf of world experience they are whittled from.
The film begins with radio news of a grey winter—but we can’t imagine the climate ever being radiant or colorful in the flatland where the film is set. The first people we see are a couple dressing separately after sex, putting on their winter underwear in a darkened room by day; it’s a fair bet that DP Christopher Blauvelt is taking a cue from the melancholic interiors of Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, whose influence on cinema seems to have been solidly on the rise for the last few years (Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago, Terence Davies’s Sunset Song). The woman tenderly puts a woolly-socked foot to her lover’s back: as playfully sexual a gesture as this weary, wintry world permits.
The woman is Laura Wells (Laura Dern), a lawyer in a small town practice, who turns up at work after her lunchtime assignation—flustered, jumper awkwardly tucked into her skirt—to find that she’s still being sought by a persistent client, Fuller (Jared Harris). He’s a worker whose eyesight has been damaged in an industrial injury, and Wells has been telling him for ages that he has no case for a claim, as he has already accepted a certain sum for damages. He won’t listen, no doubt because she’s a woman. Resignedly, she accompanies him to see an older male attorney who says the same; this time, Fuller nods in acquiescence. But when the man takes desperate action, it’s Wells who is called in to summon her nerve and walk into a dangerous situation. It’s in the nature of Reichardt’s style that the film leads us calmly and quietly to this moment of crisis—then, without undue ceremony, leads us out again. In the process, lives have been affected irreversibly—but what we take from the episode is a sense that life in this film’s world, whatever crises may occur, always tends back to a state of inertia. Wells emerges from the episode much as she’s always been: quietly resigned to things forever being much as they are.
In the second episode, we met the family of the bearded man, Ryan Lewis (James LeGros), whom we recognize as Wells’s lover, although nothing is ever said about that. He’s married to Gina (Michelle Williams), an energetic, insistent, somewhat irascible woman who has her heart set on building a new home for the couple and their daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier). Seemingly well-heeled, they’re currently camping in some luxury in a country spot where the new home will be built; Gina’s intention is to build from repurposed local natural materials. She has her eye on a pile of sandstone bricks, once from a schoolhouse, languishing in the yard of elderly Albert (a welcome, and very rewarding, sighting of veteran Robert Altman repertory player René Auberjonois). She and Ryan visit Albert, and Gina charms the old man into agreement—Williams’s round, candid face coming into its own as Gina plays nice. It’s the most elusive episode here because so little is stated, and we gain so little concrete knowledge of these people; yet we come away with a distinct uneasy sense of how smiling good-neighborliness can mask a ruthlessly self-serving streak. The details we learn of Albert’s family history gives us a sense of how a past is being erased as we watch.
The third episode is perhaps the most direct, the most familiar in terms of the logic of the short story; but it’s in no way the least inspired, and it’s certainly the one that emotionally cuts the deepest. It shows a young woman, played by Lily Gladstone and referred to in the end credits only as “the Rancher”—working with horses on a ranch, alone and accompanied only by an enthusiastic stumpy-legged dog. We see her over the winter, occasionally sliding open a barn door onto a vast snow-covered landscape. One night, with nothing better to do, she drives to the nearest town, sees a group of cars parked outside a school, and follows her curiosity inside. There, the first in a series of lessons on School Law is being given by a diffident young woman, law graduate Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart), who’s driven miles to do this badly paid gig in front of a sullen group of teachers who only seem interested in specific issues affecting their daily work. But she has an eager listener in the rancher, who invites her to a diner afterwards, where they talk and bond.
To all intents and purposes, this third tale is a love story in the bud. We don’t know either woman’s sexuality, but we sense that both need companionship. There’s definitely an amorous hunger in the way that the rancher effectively romances her new friend—one night, picking her up on horseback. Because the film is set in the world it is, things don’t go as we dearly wish they might: the story leads to the Rancher driving to the next town in search of her friend, and of course, we wind up back in the office where Dern’s character works. These stories intersect, but only peripherally—merely grazing each other, as it were. This third episode climaxes in a road event that in most films would be catastrophic; here, it just gently happens, before life rolls obstinately on. And that small unspectacular revelation—that life is less inclined to change radically than to continue on the same well-beaten path—is the nature of tragedy in this film. Life goes on—and on. But the train that we viewers ride will have passed out of town, and we’ll never witness the long-term consequences.
There’s a reference in the story to a character being a member of the Samoan royal family; now he’s a night watchman in a nondescript Montana town. We get a sense of a fall having taken place—although the world we’re shown is not fallen so much as slumped, having yielded to wear and ennui. That is constantly visible in the landscape of grey parking lots, and the all-surrounding sea of beige, both in the outside landscapes and in a mall where Native American tradition has now been reduced to a demonstration of lunchtime pageantry for shoppers.
Reichardt’s cinema—with her precise eye for quietness and the signs of everyday sorrow—is not for every viewer, and her penchant for mapping the ordinary at its most melancholic will be anathema to moviegoers who prefer a gratifying, conclusive emotional payoff. Certain Women, despite giving each of its stories a brief encapsulating coda, isn’t merely open-ended—it seems to deny the very idea of narrative closure. Yet this is arguably Reichardt’s most emotionally rewarding film, not least because of the acuteness of the performances. Williams is wonderfully ambivalent and Dern’s permanently fatigued, tetchy, yet infinitely patient lawyer is the best performance this chronically misused player has given in ages. Kristen Stewart evokes a very different, pinched weariness as Beth, showing another register of the taut inwardness she explores so superbly in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper. But the revelation of the film is Lily Gladstone (seen in Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P.), making something wonderfully eloquent and eagerly desirous from the taciturnity and insistence of a character who allows herself briefly to cede to (romantic? or platonic?) desire while recognizing that sooner or later, the snow will fall again, and the train will just roll on.
Jonathan Romney is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Film of the Week column. He is a member of the London Film Critics Circle.