Certain Women

Certain Women ★★★★★

The difference between Kelly Reichardt and nearly all her contemporaries is the difference between someone who sees and someone who knows. The Knowers look at a tree, or a stage, or a desert, or a baseball bat, and they translate exactly that onto the screen. They think in a hermetically-sealed, square-angled world of arguments, positions, lots of Meaning and Significance and Important Art packed per square-inch of movie-frame, lots of unconvincing Ambiguity that looks profound from a distance, but jellifies into contrivance and stiffness upon closer inspection. The Knowers try way too hard to mindblow the viewer, to introduce them to spectacles-of-the-mind that climax into “Aha! Eureka” revelations (a puzzle’s been solved, an institution’s been shown up), or to remind them that, hey, what’s happening on screen is just as it happens in life, ain’t that somethin’, ain’t that what cinema’s all about. A mimesis of an abstract/philosophized life-into-reality, and interesting in its own right, sure, but the Knowers (tight-assed journalistic, safe, PC bunch that they are) never really reckon with the strangeness of things in the world.

Kelly Reichardt, by contrast, is a seer. She respects the weirdness of the most microcosmic details — an untucked Laura Dern shirt, train whistles playing like cathedral bells in the sound mix, a quail call deep in a forest, Michelle Williams’ eyes shifting around a house to imagine what her home would look like instead of immersing herself in Old Man Albert’s dementia-moment, the bashful, never-lets-up smile of Lily Gladston — and is able to really dig deep beneath a thing’s surface to uncover its disharmony, its radical weirdness. For this, Kelly Reichardt is one of our most kino-eyed, undeclamatory artists.

There's a certain McCabe & Mrs. Miller touch in Reichardt’s dealing with the themes of “United in Loneliness,” “Loneliness in Bustling Communities.” (No surprise that the slightly demented old man, one of the loneliest and most sympathetic male characters, is Rene Auberjonois, a member of the Robert Altman Stock Company.) Reichardt matches Altman’s de-centered approach to sound, lazy-river character development, Morse Code plotting. The impression of McCabe and Certain Women is, at first, that the film is nothing but scattered, half-mumbled moments — then, the shocking revelation, at last, that those scattered moments are representative of the depressing loneliness at the center of this film with no center. There’s the devastating, cool kick in the gut when Lily Gladstone’s rancher-life of Chantal Akerman-like routine (grazing horses, melting snow, preparing food, watching TV) has only built itself up to the moment when she embars on a four-hour drive to try and rekindle some sort of friendship-romance-togetherness with Kristen Stewart. When Kristen awkwardly says hi to Lily, refusing to engage in conversation, you feel like crying. Likewise, there’s the wounded puppy-dog emotions oozing out of Jared Harris’ disgruntled office worker. Up until this point a clueless and campy target of idiotic masculinity, at the end of the picture, Harris suddenly re-orients himself into a position of weird empathy. He uses jes-joshin’ humor to forget about his state of mental degradation (“My wife left me for a guy in prison. What about me? I’m a guy in prison…”), begging for Laura Dern to send him letter, about anything. (“It can be ‘How was your day,’ it can be ‘What did you eat,’ it doesn’t have to be a tome.”)

Unlike the McCabe film — which used a muddled soundtrack, an unearthly glow of auburns and spaced-out brown-ness, and a witchy Leonard Cohen (RIP) score to get its lonely points across — Reichardt prefers the crispness and starch that comes with a steel-pine-needle-scented, early morning Montana mountainscape. Blown up on a movie screen, there is just enough out-of-focus haze in the 16mm grain to suggest a skewering-into-place of bored characters by dead trees, deader brown hills. These images pass by on the car windows, where the hologrammatic faces of Michelle Williams and her family sit comatose and afraid of suburbennui in the passenger seat of their gas-guzzling SUV. The loneliness of Certain Women frightens me. Certain Women, a film whose anguish only bubbles out at the end of a long, weary, love-wracked night — where the passing of a lost memory or the spurning of a love you thought was common sensical builds up inside you — until it must burst out, like a broken dam, into this volcanic eruption of vileness and hatred at that person you love. Then, the calming period. Then, the tears and regret. Kelly Reichardt is too tactful, too understanding, too non-cloying and too integral to ever show that explosion. She only hints at it, and we supply the rest.

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