“It would be so lovely to think that, if I were a man, I could explain the law and people would listen… that would be so restful.” So says Laura (Laura Dern), a lawyer desperately in need of some rest, in the first story of the triptych that makes up Kelly Reichardt’s sixth feature Certain Women. Shot on 16mm, it is lovely in the sense of made with love: spare and bold, shot in -30º Montana with a small crew and small budget. Certain Women is initially restless – it does start with a train a-comin’ down the tracks – and finally restful, as each of its three leads finds their certainty, in being listened to and in listening.
Adapted by Reichardt herself (in her first solo screenplay) from three short stories by Maile Meloy, each section of the film focuses on a woman struggling with life in small-town Montana. As well as running her legal practice, Laura is having a daytime affair with local real estate agent Ryan, and humouring her former client Fuller’s insistence that there must be a way to sue for the injury that ended his working life. When a male lawyer tells Fuller (exactly as Laura told him) that there’s no deal, Fuller seems to accept it – only to take a security guard at his old firm hostage, and demand Laura’s attendance at the scene in the middle of the night.
Far from the all-guns-blazing drama that suggests, Certain Women is more about the small, persistent, frustrating things that wake you up in the middle of the night. Or rather, the big things, like patriarchy and capitalism and colonialism and homophobia and the slow disenfranchisement of rural America, as they are expressed through small everyday losses and misses. Laura’s not the only one who wishes people would listen: in the second story, Gina (Michelle Williams, in her third film with Reichardt) wants her husband Ryan’s support (yep, same Ryan) in buying some sandstone that’s sitting in the front yard of an old-timer called Albert. But Ryan is, in so many ways, a dick: as if it’s not enough that he’s having an affair to get back at his wife for being his boss, he dumps Laura over the phone because Gina is suspicious, but doesn’t back Gina in her dealings with Albert or with their daughter.
He’s just not listening: what Gina (who, with her fancy athleisure wear, is clearly from out of town) is really saying is that she wants to find a way of belonging. The sandstone is her way of fitting into the town’s history and appearance. What’s magical is that Albert hears her, and the deal is struck; bittersweet, too, given that Gina is buying with her ready cash what Albert has cared for with love. Also bittersweet because the sandstone blocks were from the schoolhouse built by white settlers, so Gina’s belonging rests on a double displacement.
The third story in the triptych makes this visible – and makes amends for it. Reichardt is one of the few contemporary white American filmmakers to look squarely at the attempted genocide against Native Americans (in her feminist Western Meek’s Cutoff), and Certain Women is rarer still in having a contemporary Native American character, known only as the Rancher, and played by mixed Blackfeet actor Lily Gladstone. Working the winter on a ranch outside of town, she tends the horses alone day in, day out – until one night when she drives into town, and happens on a legal class for high school teachers, taught by Elizabeth (Kirsten Stewart). Instantly (if silently) smitten, the Rancher takes Beth to an all-night diner before she drives three hours back to her home town, taking care of the tired, frazzled young woman working off her student debt.
Once again, the expected blaze is not lit, except in the Rancher’s quiet heart. Reichardt fans (and Kristen Stewart fans) eagerly waiting for a fully-fledged lesbian love story will be disappointed, given how seriously unrequited the Rancher goes. But also delighted, because this is as stirring a portrait of queer love beyond the metropolitan elite as Moonlight. Yet unlike Barry Jenkins’ extraordinary film, Certain Women hasn’t been rewarded with the Oscar nominations talked up in early reviews from Toronto. It did win Best Film at last year’s London Film Festival, and all four leads have been nominated for acting awards, with Gladstone, in her first lead role, picking up half a dozen ‘breakthrough’ awards and a dozen more nominations. As Wendy Ide and Simran Hans note here, Gladstone should have taken the podium for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards, and Reichardt’s absence from the Best Director line-up smarted all the more as the shortlist was (once again) majority male.
Why are these critics coming, guns blazing, for the judges who passed on a low-budget film about four women quietly falling apart and pulling themselves back together? Certain Women is, literally, the opposite of The Revenant, last year’s big awards winner – and of La La Land. There’s no fantasy here, either of straight white love in rhyming couplets, or of male heroism and manifest destiny. Instead, there’s something much harder to capture on film, and to compel audience with: the rhythms of everyday life. From the mysterious jingles that sound over the opening shot to the song of a small quail, almost invisible in the bleached grass, Certain Women would like you to listen, but it’s not going to shout for your attention.
And it doesn’t need to: having made a Western and an environmental thriller (Night Moves), Reichardt has come full circle to the heart-on-sleeve intimacies (and one-paycheque-from-disaster failing middle class) of her devastating girl-loses-dog film Wendy and Lucy. And it’s the Rancher’s story, more populated by horses than by people, that will win your heart. In a closing coda that briefly revisits each story, finding Laura visiting Fuller in jail and Gina sneaking off from Ryan for a quick cigarette break, it’s the Rancher and her dog who own the final shot, and you’ll want to watch them forever.