London Film Festival: The Glorious Uncertainty of Certain Women

Michelle Williams as Gina Lewis in Kelly Reichardt's stunning Certain Women.

Michelle Williams as Gina Lewis in Kelly Reichardt’s stunning Certain Women.

On Saturday, Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, Certain Women, won the top prize at the London Film Festival awards ceremony – an accolade it entirely deserves. Its title is a play on words: the women in question are all searching in their own way for certainty and self-definition, while never quite managing to find it. “Certain” can mean specific, or it can mean some, but not all. These paradoxical layers of meaning reveal themselves quietly as the film unfolds. How much, the film asks, can we be sure of our lives, our loves, our jobs, our very selves. Certain Women is a film of open questions whose answers prove elusive.

Based on three short stories (“Tome”, “Native Sandstone” and “Travis, B”) by the Montana-born writer Maile Meloy, Certain Women, like Meloy’s writing, is spare and tender. Reichardt weaves scenes from the lives of four characters from these stories (changing gender in one case and throwing in a teenage daughter in another) into a loosely-knit structure. The classic beginning, middle and end would be too tight a corset for these women. Instead, Reichardt has created a film whose strands radiate outwards from a core made up of the combined desires and needs of her characters. This is not the messy, madcap Robert Altman approach of Short Cuts, and Meloy, although she shares his acuity and depth, is a different sort of writer from Raymond Carver. Place—in this case Montana with its sweeping landscapes, harsh winters and isolation—features largely in Meloy’s writing, providing Reichardt with another character to work with. The feel of Certain Women differs from Reichardt’s four previous films, Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves, whose characters seemed impelled by the thrust of moving West, towards the Pacific. This film, on the other hand, takes place in a landlocked space where characters’ lives are hemmed in by mountains. These stories could only happen where Meloy has made them happen: in this case Livingston, Montana and a ranch near Glendive, in eastern Montana. Meloy’s ability to get inside the lives of her women is reminiscent of Alice Munro’s fascination with the inner workings of quiet women trying to live good lives and she works it to equally devastating effects.

Kelly Reichardt once wrote about how she preferred to work from short stories rather than novels because she likes to “expand, not condense”. Her sense of expansion is what gives her films their breadth and depth, their meditative quality and their trance-like pull, which takes us into deceptively small stories that explode upon impact. This is partly down to Reichardt’s ability to coax wonderfully underplayed performances from her actors, and in this Certain Women is no exception. The opening line of dialogue is spoken as we see a man and a woman getting dressed after what we can assume is a quick lunchtime tryst. “You better get to work,” the man says. And this is exactly what the woman does. She rushes to her office, flustered, blouse half hanging out. There is something so innocuous about this comment and yet it comes over as controlling, almost chilling.

The lives Reichardt focuses on in Certain Women are disparate but connected. Laura (Laura Dern) is the put-upon lawyer of the lunch-time tryst who is being mildly harassed by a disgruntled client, Bill Fuller (Jared Harris). Fuller is unable to accept that he is not eligible for any more settlement money from an accident he sustained at work. At the end of her tether, Laura gets a male lawyer to explain Fuller’s case to him. The penny drops as soon as Fuller hears it from a man’s mouth. “I have been telling the guy he had no case, but he had to hear it from a man,” Laura sighs. Was it just me, or was there a communal outtake of breath in the mostly female audience at this corollary to mansplaining?

Events take on an unexpected trajectory and Laura finds herself strapped into a Kevlar vest and sent headfirst into a slightly comical hostage-taking while a gang of male police officers wait for her to do their job for them. Her client and the cops can only see Laura as hostage bait, as a woman, a shoulder to cry on. Laura’s vulnerability and exasperation (perfectly conveyed by Dern) are the result of her desire to be so much more than the earpiece to her client’s problems, if only she could be seen here for what she really is: a lawyer and a woman.

Without giving anything away, this story overlaps with that of Ryan and Gina Lewis (James LeGros and Michelle Williams) and their monosyllabic teenage daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier). Guthrie is a Reichardt addition and what better way to drive a wedge between a couple than to throw in a teenage daughter. Her name, which we can assume comes from Woody Guthrie, is the perfect shorthand for this couple and their hipster chic lives. We know the type well. Where Laura’s life is pieced together by surreal moments fuelled by a naïve sincerity, Ryan and Gina are a couple just barely hanging onto their marriage—and they know it. Prickly and sharp with each other, their discomfort with the world and themselves oozes from them. At one point, Gina sarcastically says to her daughter, “Thanks for helping out.” To which Guthrie replies, “No one asked me to.” Gina shoots back, “No one asked me to either, I just figured it out all by myself.” Another put upon woman, this time locked in a dynamic of resentment and bitterness as she volleys between being a mother and a wife. Even when Ryan tries to make it better by telling Guthrie, out of earshot of Gina, “Let’s be nice to your mom today.” Guthrie asks, “Why? Is she sick?” Kindness is something that has a value and these characters simply can’t seem to afford it.

Gina’s major desire—and perhaps the one thing that gives her life meaning—is to build a house using “native stone and railroad ties”. Or as Meloy puts it, “things that fit in”. This is important, because Gina and Ryan are “out-of-staters”. Unlike the other characters in the film, they don’t belong in Montana. They visit the elderly Albert who has a pile of native sandstone on his land, which Gina has earmarked for her dream home. She tries to get a price from him, but how can Albert translate the stone into money? For him these are not just hunks of rock, they are part of the earth and bear the marks of the pioneers who carved them from the land—they are his history. “If you want to sell,” Gina tells him, “think of a price. I don’t know how much a rock costs.” And there it is: the gap between the Alberts and the Ginas of this world. You cannot put a price on land and what it means to people—especially in a place like Montana, the “Treasure State” where the ground, and what lies below it, are so indelibly tied to its inhabitants. Ryan tries to cover for his wife by explaining to the somewhat baffled Albert that “Gina just wants this new house to be authentic”. (The italics are in the original story.) At which point the audience is squirming.

The clashing of values and backgrounds also surfaces in the third narrative in which a frazzled young lawyer, Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart), has taken a teaching job nine hours from where she lives. Combining the impossibly long return drive with a full-time junior lawyer job is wearing her out. But she wants to make it work as a way of avoiding what her family sees as the pinnacle of success for a woman: selling shoes. One night a nameless ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) wanders into her adult education class. We don’t know why she’s there, but there is a sense that she is restless and seeking something by driving around in her heated truck on a cold night. She awkwardly walks in to the classroom and sits at the back taking everything in with a look of confused wonder.

Beth and the ranch hand soon make a habit of going to a diner after class, where they don’t so much as get to know each other as tentatively find things out. Over the course of their meetings, the ranch hand develops an attachment to Beth. Where there is attachment in a Reichardt film, there is the potential for abandonment and heartache. Gladstone manages to wordlessly turn her disappointment into tragedy. Like all the performances in Certain Women, Gladstone’s is pure alchemy. In Meloy’s story, the ranch hand is a guy called Chet Moran who walks with a limp from a childhood blighted by Polio. By allowing this chaste infatuation to spring up between women, we are encouraged to consider the difficulty, the lack of a straightforward vocabulary, around same sex crushes in small towns, and the universality of love that goes unreturned.

Beautifully shot on 16mm by Christopher Blauvelt, who also filmed Reichardt’s Night Moves and Meek’s Cutoff, the film’s grain and texture reflect the distance between people physically and emotionally, as if there were visual static in the air. Reichardt was thinking of shooting it digitally but when she looked at some test scenes, she realized that “the layers of snow on the ground looked like a white wall – there was just no detail”. So she turned to film. The soundscape of Certain Women, designed by Kent Sparling, veers between the manmade and the natural. The small town of Livingston, Montana, where most of the action takes place, is signposted by the incessant whistle of a train. When we leave town, the characters are roused or stunned into silence by the rush of wind and water. The man-made and the natural come together in a striking way in the third strand of the film. Every morning, there is the rumble of the stable doors as the ranch hand opens them to reveal the snowy landscape, the horses, the mountains, and the near silence stretching out into the distance. In the barn, the radio drones. The ranch hand is not quite out of contact of the world, but very nearly. It is this note that Reichardt ends on. A sort of temporal and spatial netherworld between places and states of being. The narratives are not tied up neatly; they are too real for that. Instead they jostle and shift, like melting ice moving down a river. They lift and sink in turns—each small movement affecting the whole. This is what Certain Women is like: a half frozen river summoning us to jump in and yet we know if we do we will emerge not quite the same as before.

Joanna Pocock

About Joanna Pocock

Joanna Pocock graduated with distinction from the Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University. She has written for the London Sunday Independent, 3:AM, Mslexia and Good Housekeeping in the UK. In the US she has published work in The LA Times, The Nation, JSTOR Daily and Distinctly Montana. She has been teaching Creative Writing at Central St Martins for fifteen years, but is currently taking time off to explore the American West.
Some of her writing can be found at: www.joannapocock.blogspot.co.uk and www.missoulabound.worpress.com

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