Friday, 3 March 2017

Certain Women - Dir. Kelly Reichardt

Following the intense dam-busting thriller Night Moves, Kelly Reichardt returns with her sixth feature, Certain Women, her fourth in a notably prolific last decade. Based on a number of short stories by Maile Meloy, Certain Women tells loosely connected stories of three women living in weathered small town Montana.

Laura (Laura Dern) is a lawyer with an unsatisfied client, Gina is a wife and mother looking to bring her family closer together in their new home and a lonely horse rancher (Lily Gladstone) stumbles into a night class on the intricacies of school law.

The film begins with a train rattling down the frame, creating the all-important sense of place for these stories: a place where little ever happens and never at any great speed. Even when Laura finds herself in the middle of a hostage situation, there’s a calmness that belies the severity of the situation. Laura is sent in to negotiate with her client, an aggrieved worker called Fuller (Jared Harris) who feels mistreated by his former employer. Having already wasted an afternoon with Fuller, who only appeared to accept his situation when he got a second opinion from a male lawyer, Laura is frustrated but remains steadfastly calm and assured.

Reichardt affords Fuller the same degree of nuance and depth as Laura, which ensures that the thread of sexism at the centre of their story never betrays the measured approach of the film; by avoiding polemical statements, Reichardt’s themes resonate more honestly and powerfully.

The same applies to the second story as Gina tries to persuade Albert (René Auberjonois) to sell the sandstone that rests in his front yard. Albert appears uncomfortable negotiating with Gina and confused at the notion of her taking the lead on the building project, rather than her husband. The more the conversation progresses, the more it becomes apparent that the sandstone (or what it represents) may hold some emotional significance to this ageing and lonely man. Again, Reichardt doesn’t overplay the scene, leaving enough room personal curiosity.

The third story takes the film into the expansive farmlands where Lily Gladstone’s rancher diligently tends to the farm’s horses alone through the winter. Reichardt spends time to establish the monotony and isolation of the work that ultimately drives Gladstone’s rancher to a local night class on school law. She forms a quasi-friendship with class teacher Beth (Kristen Stewart), a bedraggled young lawyer who hadn’t anticipated the arduous 4 hour drive when agreeing to teach the class.

It’s a friendship built upon Beth’s desire for food before her long drive home and Gladstone’s desire for company. It eventually builds to a more overtly romantic attraction but it is the way Beth has made a life for herself that Gladstone’s rancher admires initially. Even as Beth deglamourizes her life, Gladstone’s rancher sits captivated, portraying a sense that she too might have ambitions beyond the lifestyle she was born into.

Relative newcomer Gladstone shines brightest amongst the universally excellent cast; Jared Harris also gives a deeply memorable performance as the disgruntled employee Fuller. Reichardt presents the bulk of each story in order to establish the situation that each of these women face; she then returns to each to provide a concluding (if still somewhat open-ended) coda.

To call Certain Women a series of connected stories is both true and also grossly misleading; the stories do overlap but entirely in the manner you expect from a filmmaker with the maddeningly obtuse Meek’s Cutoff on her résumé. With Certain Women however, she manages to balance her penchant for poetic storytelling with a strong narrative clarity and purpose. At one point, Michelle Williams’ character Gina is seen literally going with the flow as she walks alongside a river. It is an image that epitomizes the heart of the film: a quietly affecting portrait of the strength and resilience of these women living in the confines of small town America.

Certain Women is in UK cinemas now.

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