CERTAIN WOMEN (2016, Kelly Reichardt)
An almost inevitable step in Reichardt’s career — improving on her careful observation of intimate human interaction as well as her use of the right amount of story (perhaps OLD JOY had too little and NIGHT MOVES too much). And like that career, this film gets better as it goes along: the Laura Dern segment is well-modulated but lacks emotion where you’d suspect it desires it; the Michelle Williams part starts to get at the meat of the theme (and boasts such a good and understated performance that you understand Reichardt’s continued employment of Williams), and finally the Lily Gladstone story kicks into a sensational gear of sadness and delicacy.
Relying on paralyzing wide shots that allow Montana’s big sky and imposing landscape to dwarf the humans, CERTAIN WOMEN renders those personal moments nearly meaningless in the face of such indifferent natural power. But even within that existential setting, the daily struggles of these specific and well-realized characters reach grand and universal heights. There’s a lot said in the break of Dern’s voice when she cries “He’s unarmed!”; in the freedom Williams feels when she sneaks her solitary cigarette during the run; and in the importance of Gladstone brushing her hair before heading out to that third law class. Just like the human condition is impotent and fleeting when confronted by the vastness of the outdoors, the female condition in society is forced to roll a metaphorical boulder up an imposing hill every single day. Finally, Reichardt ends each segment with a beautifully symmetrical image of the protagonist viewing her adversary through a window — that glass pane separating the loser from the winner in a situation where everyone just wants what’s best.
So why, then, does Reichardt overplay her hand and return to each story in a pointless epilogue? The window-pane endings become fake-outs, and we learn nothing new about anyone. I wish the film had the confidence to leave them where they landed. Also, for once Kristen Stewart fails to allow her underplayed charisma to reveal a real character — the look on her face when she faces off against Gladstone in a fateful parking lot doesn’t say half as much as Gladstone’s does (which itself is a testament to just how great Gladstone is here). James Le Gros also comes across as a bit of a cipher — why is this dude cheating on his wife, and why does he seem so concerned with her being treated as she deserves? His scene with Dern and his scene in the car with the daughter are not just at odds narratively, but Le Gros performs them as if he’s in two different movies.