Embedded within but highly subversive to the American Western, Kelly Reichardt’s wilderness of small-scale conversations and un-obtrusive insight suggests that there is no physical space as trying to master as that of the internal. She singularly offers another vision of a feminist Western that is actually unmoored from the decorum of romanticism or the bindings of mythopoetic malehood. In place of high-stakes conflicts and brooding, unfettered soul-searching, she lyrically produces a handful of uncanny, narratively-unkempt stanzas on lost dreams, stagnant desires, and interpersonal dilemmas that are far more truly disjunctive to masculinity than women with guns because only the former actually erode masculine storytelling structures at their very bones rather than simply placing women within them unabated. Rather than physical conflicts belying and then bearing quandaries of the mind and soul, as most superior Westerns do, Reichardt more purely distills the latter, dispensing with guns, ammo, and posturing entirely. Wringing herculean drama out of the seemingly diaphanous, Reichardt’s exploration of a polluted but hopeful world draws a supple mood of traumatic disquiet, a more minor-key crisis for a series of women in modern day Montana than the kind of consternation most Westerns are willing to deal with.
Throughout the introductory segment of this triptych, Laura Dern plays Laure, a lawyer attempting to talk down a frustrated client named Fuller (Jared Harris) with … a gun, so I suppose my earlier paragraph can be disregarded, no? But the gun here is not a serious threat, nor a corporeal manifestation of an internal threat, but a purely ancillary accouterment. The most heart-wrenching – and effortful – moment is realizing that Fuller quietly slides into and accepts comments by a male lawyer after Laura has expended centuries of energy on explaining to him that he can’t sue his former employee after having accepted a prior settlement. It’s an intimate and prescient truth of Reichardt’s world that the ostensibly more narratively-freighted sequences – a man with a gun, a threat upon your very life – both distract from and importantly expand the jarring, discordant, and prescient truths proferred by the intimacies of everyday living. Her past two films – the lucid, lugubrious Western Meek’s Cutoff and the crawling, prowling eco-thriller Night Moves – advance her thematic sovereignty as a writer-director not merely by emphasizing new genres or even demanding her answers. They expand the realm of her questions of human connection. She reveals how arbitrary genre distinctions can be – “is this a Western?” – when inquiries into missed opportunity and human miscommunication are on the mind.
Of course, Certain Women is as much a Western as Cutoff. Both complicate and critique that genre’s masculinist rhetoric and fetish for bootstrap individualism coupled with justifications for empire. This complication is not merely a question of foregrounding the titular women but of displacing the genre’s classical emphasis on accumulation narratives and archiving achievement, both of which are diffused in this film and replaced with less heroic standards of agency and less grandiose notions of heroism. But if Reichardt jeopardizes any clean trajectories between time periods, her film also sketches connections that persist through the various contingencies of time.
Which is to say, these women inhabit their own personal frontiers despite living over a century past the norm-challenging homesteaders of Meek’s Cutoff. However, this modern-set film exhibits a quieter breed of hinterlands, compared to Meek’s and even compared to the explicit leftists occupying the subject positions in Night Moves, women and men who more overtly tested the ethical assumptions of mainstream liberal society. The women of Certain Women lack that kind of freedom, but this film imagines another kind of wild west, one where the boundaries aren’t spatial or even ethical but perceptual. The segments of this film all turn on sensory failure of the soul. The characters no longer want simply to own homes or settle down or change the world, but simply to be acknowledged, to be seen, to be heard, to be sensed in a new way more akin to how they sense themselves.
Men like Fuller – unthinkingly, without hatred – don’t always see these women for who they are. One slight key-in early on – a half-second slip of cinematic obviousness – gives us that man’s perspective, blurry and amorphous, unlocking the film’s own concerns about the tenuousness of moral and empathetic sight in the 21st century. We see as he sees, and his sight is mediated if not obviously blinkered. Montana is one of the least populated states in the country, but Reichardt’s concerns do not tackle the arduous physical obstacles between journey and goal, between the individual seeker and the waiting community. Her worries and deep breaths of silent frustration are reserved for more abstract interpersonal abutments, those which go unseen due to requiring other modes of seeing, other means of respecting other people, listening to them, interacting with them, altogether.
These are our personal failures on display, often foibes we cannot even recognize, our discomfiting disagreements with one another or, even worse, our inability to even read another’s face to consider when a hidden disagreement eludes the eyes and ears. Certain Woman’s Montana is still a desolate space in some ways, and still only partially domesticated despite a century of movement toward white America’s constructed, fragile, and racist notion of “civilization”. But because this Montana still partially lies outside mainstream understandings of life, Reichardt evokes a landscape – a mental landscape this time – with unfinished business and unresolved possibilities, potential moments of new connection and compassion that too often remain disconnected. But her greatest feat is suggesting that the unknowability of this world is not simply its geographic otherness or its embeddedness deep within the American imagination as a mystical space more than a physical location. Its unknown-ness is not its physical, literal displacement from the mainstream world, but its mental similarity, its revealing nature as a world that reflects our own even when we do not see ourselves in it. In other words, it reflects aspects of ourselves we are unawares of, parts of our being that both emanate from and which we position beneath daily routine. As with any great director, Reichardt treats her camera not as an indexical representation of the world – an unmediated factual reality – but a way of imagining existence, of seeing between the gaps in one surface reality to witness the fleeting, amorphous presence of another.
Adapted from a series of short stories by Maile Meloy, there are two other spiritually kindred tales after Dern’s, the first of which is the only-slightly-more-trifling connective piece featuring Michelle Williams as a woman attempting to purchase land from a rural soul out of Montana’s past. If that penultimate segment feels more like a stop-gap on the way to the dazzlingly deep finale, it is more-so a statement to the emotional eloquence of the finale than any real shortcomings of the middle segment. In this ultimate segment of Certain Women’s tripartite film, relative-unknown Lily Gladstone stars as Jamie, a rancher who ventures into a class taught by Beth (Kristen Stewart), the subject of which is to educate a cadre of teachers about the prospects and contingencies of school law. Certain Women’s opening segment finds beauty in the banal – and in Dern’s majestic performance, but when does she give any other kind of performance? – but this conclusion is insurmountable, languid and poetically lyrical and tarred with the stickiest of emotional feathers. Among Reichardt’s women – all of them just “passing through,” to quote her – Jamie and Beth are among the least conventionally expressive, but they both manage the feat of clinging to their frailties while emitting minute shards of need for connection, mere murmurs of hopefulness in an alienating world. Reichardt can’t give them this connection, but she can, and does, devote her film to exploring their souls.