Kelly Reichardt doesn’t make typical movies. She doesn’t make love stories, mysteries, or farces. Her films offer few thrills and little means for vicarious escape. While so many filmmakers aim to transport their audience to another world, Reichardt finds plenty worthy of interest in our own. Indeed, there are few contemporary filmmakers who have plumbed the existential depths of the mundane with such stubborn regularity and resounding success. From a hard-up young woman searching for her missing dog in a small Oregon town (2008’s Wendy and Lucy) to two old friends attempting to reconnect over a weekend camping trip (2006’s Old Joy), Reichardt’s stories examine the ways in which the most elemental stuff of our identity and life experience seeps into the unremarkable activities of our day-to-day lives.
“I really like filming processes. Whatever that is: walk across the country, build a fire, build a bomb, go to work, feed a horse,” Reichardt said after a screening of Certain Women at the New York Film Festival (NYFF). “The getting to and fro seems to be where a lot of things take place.”
Starting with 1994’s River of Grass—a sort of anti-road movie about two would-be fugitives in suburban Miami who never quite get it together to actually flee—Reichardt has directed six features to date, all bearing her signature character-oriented approach. Rather than trace linear paths of character growth, Reichardt’s human studies develop by an accumulative process of patient observance. As such, the conflicts that propel her stories are more frequently logistical than interpersonal: a broken down car or covered wagon (as in the 2010 period Western Meek’s Cutoff), a malfunctioning cell phone, a familiar landscape that refuses to yield a path half-remembered.
Reichardt’s characters are lost, stuck, or wanted, and in the particulars of their responses to these situations, the director finds some hint of their truest selves. Wendy’s (Michelle Williams) observant distrust of the people she encounters, coupled with her single-minded devotion to the task of locating her pet, suggest a life balanced on the rim of catastrophe, though her past circumstances and plans for the future are only ever sketched in the vaguest detail. When—in 2013 monkey wrench thriller Night Moves—the fall out of an act of sabotage threatens to spiral out of control, the increasingly extreme responses of Jesse Eisenberg’s radical environmentalist bear grim testimony to the monomania of his convictions. These revelations rarely arrive as dialogue, tending instead to emerge from the narrative space that surrounds words, Reichardt’s camera lingering on a face, a landscape, or a complex task well past the dramatic threshold of most other directors. As Certain Women co-star Laura Dern puts it, Reichardt is “interested in the life that happens in the pauses,” an approach that opens up entirely new avenues of exploration for the actors she works with.
“It’s really vulnerable to not play something. Or not be expected to play something,” shared Kristen Stewart, undoubtedly the most high-profile member of Certain Women’s marquee cast. “All of a sudden you start revealing things rather than displaying them.”
In Certain Women, Stewart plays Beth, a recent law school graduate teaching a night class in Belfry, Montana who finds herself the object of the ambiguous attentions of a local ranch hand (Lily Gladstone). Adapted from a trio of short stories by Montana-raised writer Maile Meloy, Certain Women shares a nominal ontology with earlier literary adaptations Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy (both inspired by Jon Raymond stories). Yet unlike those projects, which Reichardt patiently stretched to fit the expanded frame of a feature film, Certain Women’s triptych structure demands a dramatic concision relatively new to the director’s work. In adapting Meloy’s stories—unrelated works from two different collections—Reichardt introduced peripheral connections to bring the character’s worlds into dialogue. While some of these overlaps provide meaningful subtext between plot lines, they are, from a narrative standpoint, pretty tenuous, clearly not intended to unite the original stories into a seamless whole. What results is unique within Reichardt’s oeuvre: an ensemble film that approaches its themes from a number of different angles, rather than dwelling with one or two characters over the course of its run time.
NYFF, where Certain Women screened earlier this month, offered a bounty of new films anchored by strong female leads, featuring a slate of accomplished actresses that included Stewart, Isabelle Huppert, and Sônia Braga. This is a heartening trend, certainly, yet most of the roles spoke to a fairly limited sphere of experience: on one hand, the hyper-practical business culture of contemporary Western capitalism (Elle, Toni Erdmann), on the other, the more abstracted realms of celebrity and art (Personal Shopper, Aquarius). Within this formidable field, relative newcomer Gladstone’s understated, painfully honest turn opposite Stewart came as a breath of fresh air: a different type of woman’s experience, worlds apart from the professional habitats and upper-crust social scenes of the of the urban Western world. Buried beneath layers of thermal knit cotton and canvas, the rancher, with her artlessly butch demeanor and kind, open face, bears the marks of both the bleak solitude and indelible hopefulness of a life spent in big empty spaces. One night, Gladstone’s character shows up to class on the back of a horse—maybe the one place she feels truly herself—offering Beth a ride to the local diner. The chapter’s final set piece, in which the real depth of the rancher’s feelings are finally laid bare, is one of the more potent depictions of unrequited love in recent cinema, Gladstone riding out the pendular emotions of the moment with heartbreaking sincerity.
If Stewart and Gladstone’s encounter provides the film with its emotional climax, the preceding chapter equals those heights in terms of sheer dramatic nuance. In the second of Meloy’s adapted stories, Williams (in her third Reichardt film) and James Le Gros play a married professional couple building a second home in rural Montana. Hoping to give the property a certain geographic authenticity, the pair attempt to convince an elderly local (René Auberjonois) to sell them an unused pile of sandstone. Hinging upon Auberjonois’s exquisite portrayal of the fast-fading Albert, a simple negotiation leads into melancholic dreams of a distant past, soon to be buried beneath the petty logistics and modest hopes of the younger couple’s future. A perfect encapsulation of Reichardt’s unique approach, this simple material dilemma blossoms into a tender, philosophical examination of aspiration and the passage of time.
In the film’s opening chapter, a lawyer, Laura (Dern), finds herself trapped by the increasingly reckless behavior of a dissatisfied client, Mr. Fuller (Jared Harris). A construction worker who suffered a life-changing injury as a result of employer negligence, but ceded his right to sue when he took an initial settlement, Fuller refuses to accept his lack of legal options, eventually taking matters into his own hands. Though in Night Moves Reichardt showcased a previously unflexed talent for building cinematic tension, Fuller’s eventual showdown with the authorities is an anticlimactic, amateur affair, underlining his character’s tragic delusion. Laura and Fuller’s reappearance in the film’s coda provides Certain Women a rare instance of unambiguous character growth and the clearest articulation of its deeply felt, humanist themes. Left alone in the end, his bridges burnt, Fuller implores his lawyer to write him a letter: “You could talk about the weather, talk about your day. Just so you put it in an envelope and put it in the mail.”
The title Certain Women, with its hint of sexual moralism, might well serve a work of trenchant ideology, but Reichardt’s film bears few traces of irony. While several of her characters invoke an explicitly feminist consciousness, Reichardt’s new film—like the politically ambivalent Night Moves—is not intended to be read as a persuasive document. This is not to say Certain Women isn’t a feminist film. It most certainly is. But the inherent radicalism of Reichardt’s film is less ideological than dramatic. Reichardt’s character portraits are so meticulously wrought, so subtly human, so empathetic, that it becomes easy to forget how rarely female characters of this depth and complexity appear on American movie screens. Struggling to navigate an ambiguous world, Reichardt’s characters are far from perfect. While at times they seek out the route of compassion, at others, they settle for the path of least resistance. Most inch just a little bit closer towards a life marked by the dignity and respect they and the people around them deserve. Above all, these women are emphatically real. That in itself is a radical concept and a practice worth celebrating.