Writer-director Kelly Reichardt returns to the American frontier with Certain Women, though the bleak, unforgiving plains featured in her 2011 western Meek’s Cutoff are now encrusted with Starbucks and Jiffy Lube and and Pizza Hut, beacons of capitalism peppered across the howling void. But if it’s too easy to toy with the idea that Reichardt’s new film is some kind of a long-distance spiritual sequel to her offbeat wagon-trail epic, a study in what’s changed in the intervening century and a half can be fruitful in understanding the filmmaker’s larger project.
Reichardt’s women have progressed well beyond mere survival, as they’ve become the West. They suffer slings and arrows considerably less lethal than those faced by their ancestors, as the threat of starvation and massacre faced by the protagonists of Meek’s Cutoff seem to have shrunk in the perspectival distance. When Gina (Michelle Williams) and her husband, Ryan (James Le Gros), sit down with a taciturn neighbor, Albert (Rene Auberjonois), in order to strike a deal with him for a pile of unused sandstone, Gina’s silently exasperated struggle not to be made to feel small in polite, sitting-room conversation seems like nothing less than a reasonable update to the horrors borne by the wives and daughters who blazed the westward trail.
The threat of feeling slighted links every small and large ripple of drama in Certain Women, which is adapted from three short stories from American writer Maile Meloy’s 2009 collection, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. Reichardt’s now well-honed emphasis on pauses, silent spaces, and the weight of the material world also signals that the story’s only antagonists mean well enough, if they make any appearance at all. It isn’t an accident that Certain Women’s closest brush with genre—when attorney Laura’s (Laura Dern) enraged client, Fuller (Jared Harris), takes a night watchman hostage—is both the film’s only portrait of male indignation, and the only vignette that’s deflated in near-comic anticlimax as quickly as it reaches its apex.
The men in Certain Women don’t lose their temper, drink, or hit their wives or daughters, but there persists nonetheless a rift, as they frequently contribute negativity in their failure to see or hear, to be stoic instead of kind, thanks to some bullshit about strength in rigidity handed down to them by their forefathers. But Reichardt is too sharp and too empathetic simply to skewer her often cloddish male characters; it’s in the silences and the looks and missed connections that she sketches the battlefield.
The contrast between what men do in the face of an existential threat (in Fuller’s case, he’ll threaten violent action) and what Reichardt’s women do (laugh it off, grit their teeth) forms the support beam that gives Certain Women its shape and outline. The microscopic warfare between characters (not always boys versus girls) in Reichardt’s film testifies to a state of human relations in 2016. Clichéd melodramatic archetypes are cast aside in favor of an all-consuming drone of empathy, in which, to quote Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, everyone has their reasons.
The most pernicious and persistent crime in Certain Women seems to be an epidemic of un-hearing, of blindness to plain communication. Toward the end of her chapter, Gina attempts to wave at her difficult neighbor who’s just gifted her the sandstone, and his perfect failure even to register her presence, whether it’s because he doesn’t see her, because he’s an old crank, or because he despises her, is an exemplary Reichardtian ambiguity. Similarly, Laura suffers a client who won’t listen to a female lawyer, reacting only with gritted teeth and blithe amusement, as one does in the face of millions of years of stunted human evolution.
Reichardt closes the film with the least dramatic, but most exquisite, of the three tales, in which struggle is so deeply sublimated as to seem a mirage. By pure happenstance, a lonely ranch hand, Jamie (Lily Gladstone), wanders into a night class at the local community college. Beth (Kristen Stewart), a newly minted lawyer, is obliged to commute four hours in each direction to teach the class, twice weekly. Not one for big speeches, Jamie forms an instant attachment to Beth, conveying her infatuation with a wide, warm smile, a direct gaze, and a radiant yearning that’s evident to everyone except the exhausted Beth. Before Beth abruptly quits the class, citing the inhuman eight-hour commute, Jamie treats her to a moonlit horseback ride from the school to their de facto dining spot, a greasy spoon just down the road.
For an auteur who’s established herself as the foremost purveyor of the sublimely subdued, it may take a moment to reorient oneself to a sequence in which we’re permitted the pleasure of something as ostentatiously romantic as a moonlit horseback ride, albeit one that pivots on a gesture of love that’s been lost in translation. Of the three women in Reichardt’s film, Jamie is the most effortlessly grounded, carrying out her appointed rounds at the ranch like an eternal sentry, in stark contrast to Laura and Gina’s comparatively talkative, emotive, iPhone-wielding, middle-class women.
It’s all the more moving that Jamie’s means of dealing with the destabilizing force of unrequited love consists of one grand, romantic gesture followed by a second, and considerably more foolish one, as she drives through the night just to catch a quick hello with Beth as the latter walks from the local coffee shop to her office. Beth is blind to Jamie’s overtures, and a little bewildered, and Jamie has nothing left in her arsenal but to pivot and retreat. The universe recognizes the noble quality of Jamie’s yearning, however, and rewards her with the safe respite of a soft crash into a nearby cornfield, cutting a jagged line of collapsed cornstalk.