Certain Women

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Landscape and figures. And the landscape comes first. A long long train, one of those sleek American ones we Europeans find so very attractive and romantic, an ‘iron horse’, snakes its way along the plain while behind it rise mountains so majestic, snowy and misty they look like old paintings, images of the west where people came to start new lives. Romance and adventure leading down to the flat samey grind of daily life.

That romantic view of the place, the myth of the life of the great outdoors, is what motivates one of the ‘certain women’, Gina, played by Michelle Williams, a well-heeled townie who longs to build her new home out in the country. We catch glimpses of tourist-fodder Native American women decked out in a shopping mall – this isn’t the authenticity she wants , but maybe what she does long for is no more real. There’s a touch of Marie Antoinette’s Le Hameau (an ersatz farm where she played at being a peasant), as she sources real, used stone from an old barn, for her dream retreat. But gazing into the middle distance while her friends and family lounge under canvas watching telly and scoffing barbecued townsfolks’ idea of country fare, we see she’s a woman in a state of discontent who understands very well she won’t get what she wants.

Laura Dern’s hard working lawyer Laura will go the extra mile for her pathetic client who has expectations of the law she knows are doomed. She becomes a kind of prop, a substitute for a real friend, for him, and for that is put in some danger by the chummy police when a half-comic hostage situation occurs. All in a day’s work, and she’s still supporting him in prison. We see a life made up of this kind of thwarted intelligence and small kindnesses.

The third story is of two women. Lily Gladstone is a ranch hand who seems to work almost singlehandedly at the hard grind of looking after cows (no more cowboys in this new West). Unlike the rest she’s physically engaged with the landscape, which is never far away, the plain her working environment and those mountains seen in the distance behind her or framed in a Fordian way through barn windows. A chance stop-off at a community centre one evening confronts her with a student lawyer Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart), moonlighting as a night-school law teacher two hours away from home twice a week, whose relationship with the land is merely its roads and distances. She is exhaustion personified, and maybe it’s partly this vulnerability that attracts. It’s one of the most beautiful and credible and undemonstrative portraits of unrequited love I’ve seen on screen, Gladstone’s still, expressive face and mundane talk absolutely heartbreaking. The few moments when she’s happy, when the two share a horse-ride, she’s luminous. We’ll see more of this brilliant young actress.

The characters hardly intersect at all, other than a hurried passing on a staircase, but they make up a satisfying whole, and though all we see is one set of incidents out of their lives, it’s not a snapshot, more of a core section, a sample of everything they’re made of. Worthy additions to the gallery of troubled, awkward, normal, exhausted, quietly heroic individuals Reichardt’s minimalistic approach has brought to the screen over the years. And all against those landscapes, dwarfing them, sometimes overwhelming them, yet always making them stand out.

Seen at NFT2 London, March 2017

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