Director Kelly Reichardt shooting on location
CERTAIN WOMEN B
USA (107 mi) 2016 d: Kelly Reichardt
About as minimalist and low-key as you can get, as this threadbare portrait in three sections of women in small town Montana offers a positively enthralling view of Montana, shot in and around Livingston and Bozeman in the southeastern corner of the state by Christopher Blauvelt on 16mm (as the digital test shoots revealed a flatness and startling lack of detail in the images of snow), yet the delicate insight into the qualities of being a woman reveals hidden attributes rarely seen in movies, as there’s nothing particularly sexy or dramatic about their lives, never rising to any elevating moments, where instead the focus seems to be on the commonplace, the everyday, ordinary aspect of their lives where ambitions and relationships remain unfulfilled, with unappreciated work viewed as monotonous or even meaningless to the point of drudgery, with little expectation that they will ever rise above to some other level. This harkens back to an earlier Soderbergh film BUBBLE (2005), a technical exercise in detached evasiveness, where an indescribable loneliness seems to be the shared common denominator. By creating more relatable characters, Reichardt is deflating the expectations of the audience, changing the stereotype, altering the mythological focus on surface artificiality like beauty and sensuality, instead probing under the surface, providing a window into more realistic women’s lives that typically go unnoticed by television or Hollywood. While the director’s intent appears clear, described by Cinema Scope: Blake Williams as “simple portraits of women trying to live their lives, fulfill their desires, and maintain or manufacture some idea of happiness—may be nothing more or less than an object of pure dignity, a film about the joys and virtues of being a woman,” she’s also removed any lingering sense of drama or passion, where this feels like a kind of anti-cinema, so inert and narratively loose that it barely feels like a film, more like fragments in time, scenes from a diary, or even a literary work, adapted from two of Maile Meloy’s 2002 collection of fourteen short stories from Half in Love, Tome and Native Sandstone, and one, Travis, B, from the eleven short stories in Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, which was named one of the Ten Best Books of 2009 by The New York Times. While it may have been motivated by Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), though not nearly on the same grand scale, the film is basically a merging of both Kelly Reichardt’s and Maile Meloy’s unique voices and vision, as both focus upon marginal or disenfranchised women who usually go unnoticed, whose struggles against the banality of their routines reflect a growing compulsion for more, yet whose lives often end up in disappointment, highlighted by emotional disconnection or some unseen human failure, leading to no comfortable resolution.
The maker of River of Grass (1994), Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), and Night Moves (2013), the film opens with a long and winding freight train moving through the vastness of the landscape, where one constant throughout the opening segment of the film is the recurrent sound of train horns that are sounded as they move past small towns. In the first sequence, Laura Dern stars as Laura Wells, a Livingston lawyer seen having an affair with a married man (James Le Gros) before heading back to the office where her most hopeless client awaits her, Mr. Fuller (Jared Harris), a man who suffered a serious workplace accident landing on his head leaving him with permanent double vision and possible brain damage, but as he accepted an initial insurance payment from the company, they are no longer liable for additional damages, leaving him destitute and out of options. While he repeatedly visits the woman he calls “his lawyer,” she can only sympathize, as there is nothing she can do for him. She does arrange a meeting with another male lawyer, to offer a second opinion, and when he offers an identical assessment, Mr. Fuller seems to accept his explanation, leaving Laura to fret about how much easier it is to be a male attorney. But the guy falls off the rails shortly afterwards, abducting a night watchman in a hostage situation at the employer where he used to work, with “his lawyer” being called to the scene, prepped by officers before being sent alone into the building to peacefully talk him out. The man being held hostage is of Samoan descent (Joshua T. Fonokalafi), indicating that in his country, he’s only 14 people removed from assuming leadership, adding a note of levity, where Fuller wants to hear the company file on his case, quickly learning that he was cheated out of a larger settlement. His escape plans go awry and he is quickly arrested by the police, where Laura is seen at the prison some time later in a kind gesture, where she ends up being his only visitor, urging her to write more, about absolutely anything, even the weather, as it wears on inmates never receiving any mail.
In the least compelling segment, Michelle Williams as Gina Lewis dominates the middle section, which is all about her blind ambition, where other people barely register in her quest to obtain what she wants. While she has an obstinate teenage daughter (Sara Rodier) that defies her at every turn, her husband Ryan is the same man seen in the first segment having an affair. They’re camped out in a tent on a plot of land where they intend to build a house, with Gina scolding her husband for constantly undermining her efforts with their daughter. Ryan is a get along kind of guy who simply wants to be everyone’s friend. They pay a visit to an elderly man Albert, René Auberjonois, brilliant as the barkeep in Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) forty five years ago, with Gina trying to talk him out of some sandstone rocks heaped in front of his house for years. At 83, Albert has always refused to part with these rocks, as they are his link to history, reminding her that they come from the old schoolhouse that was built before the railways. She doesn’t care, she’s willing to pay, but her visit is clearly having an effect on Albert, whose mind seems to be fading, launching into near-incoherent soliloquys that she simply waits out before reminding him again of her intentions, as she wants to use it in building her house, “It’s beautiful stone. We want native stone to build with, railroad ties, things that fit in.” Ryan attempts to interject, sensing the old man’s unease and how important the rocks are to him, but Gina again dominates the discussion until she gets her way, scolding her husband afterwards for offering the man a way out. Obtaining what she needs appears to be her sole objective. As they load it into a truck, Albert can be seen staring out the window, where she waves, but he doesn’t wave back, now completely cut off from his past.
Though the interior world of women dominate the film, Albert’s silence speaks volumes, which leads into the final segment where Reichardt has changed a male character in the story to a female character, Jamie, played by Lily Gladstone, who is easily the most affecting character in the film. A grown up version of Ally Sheedy from THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985), who wanders aimlessly into a Saturday high school detention session because she has nothing better to do, while here Jamie, a native of the Blackfeet Reservation in northwestern Montana, is a ranch hand in rural Belfry who lives and works in isolation during the winter, but sees cars pulling into a rural school parking lot gathering for a meeting, so she curiously walks in as well. Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) is a harried young female lawyer teaching an evening class on school law twice a week, suggesting students have a right to due process and a hearing before they can be expelled, yet the teachers seem more interested in what to do with kids that interrupt their classrooms, how to more easily expel them. As the others leave afterwards, Jamie accompanies Beth to the local diner, rarely uttering a word, instead watching her eat while listening to her complain about how it’s a difficult 4-hour ride one-way to Belfry, which she mistakenly thought was Belgrade, which is nearby, driving through wretched conditions of ice and snow and then she has return home to Livingston the same way, another 4-hours, just to get up early the next morning for work. Despite having no connection to her class, Jamie returns week after week, even riding a horse to the café one week, until one day, without word, someone else has permanently taken over Beth’s teaching duties. While we see Jamie dutifully perform her work in complete isolation feeding the horses with snowy mountains looming in the distance, we also see her walk out of that class and take the 4-hour trek to Livingston searching the next morning for the law firm where Beth works, surprising her in the parking lot. Few words are spoken in a heartbreaking encounter, but Jamie mentions if she hadn’t done this, she would never see her again, leaving Beth a bit startled, not knowing what to say, so, not intending to cause a scene, Jamie leaves just as abruptly. Somehow caught in the places in between, this film thrives on the tenuous threads holding us together, featuring characters who go to unusual lengths to pursue what they want, often feeling shortchanged and emptyhanded.