BFI London Film Festival 2016 – Certain Women (2016)
There are a few filmmakers whose work I will go and see when I excitedly hear of a new project, regardless of trailer quality, plot synopsis or cast manifest. Naturally anyone who has been following this quiet corner of the internet won’t be surprised to hear that the likes of Spielberg and Scorsese, Fincher and Nolan, Malick and Mann fall into this exalted category (among others), but away from those imposing high-profile figures there are also the other, smaller scale filmmakers whom have quietly earned the Menageries continued support. If I throw some names like Sean Durkin, Sofia Coppola, Peter Strickland, Jeff Nichols or Sion Sono out there you should get the drift, although I’m sure there are a dozen or more others whose names escapes me now*. What can I say, there’s just something about the demeanor and approach of these creatives to the art form that gels with my sensibilities, I can’t really articulate this other than some sort of affinity in terms of the ‘feel’ or the ‘aura’ of their films, as opposed to any specific themes or concerns which are threaded through their work. One of the more recent elevations to the pantheon is Kelly Reichardt, an undisputed master of the ‘slow burn’ form of cinema, with her penchant for long takes, minimal dialogue, functional camera placement and empathy for realistically troubled, blue-collar characters. Her admiration seems to have steadily grown over the past decade or so, my initial exposure was forged during an unexpected viewing of Wendy & Lucy, where I was literally and figuratively blown away with a simple tale of a young hitchhiker and her dog, wandering to a heartbreaking conclusion through the economic aftermath of the global depression. Since then her stock has been raised through the well-distributed Meek’s Cutoff and to a smaller extent 2013’s Night Moves, one of my favorite films of that years Toronto Festival where I saw it in a packed house of North American devotees. Now she’s back with another acclaimed drama with a slightly ambitious twist, intertwining the lives of four women in small town Montana, in another brilliant and keenly observed drama.
The initial instinct is to frame this as a portmanteau film, a series of story strands through which the lives of four resourceful women intersect and are coolly and charitably examined. In the opening sequence small town lawyer Laura Wells (the criminally underrated Laura Dern) wallows in a slightly melancholic post-coital bliss, following a mid-day adulterous encounter with her illicit lover Ryan Lewis (James LeGros), in an opening sequence which feels like an unconscious nod to the opening of Psycho. Returning to work she patiently manages the expectations of her frustrated client (Jared Harris) whom is suing his ex-employer for a negligent termination claim. Next, and in the films weakest section Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) visits a dementia dwindled relative with her husband Ryan (the already seen LeGros), she is in the midst of building a new home for her young family and senses an opportunity in reliving her uncle of some valuable raw materials he has lying dormant on his rural estate. Finally, in a quietly heartbreaking movement newly graduated lawyer Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) is teaching an evening legal course to newly inducted state school educational staff, suffering a punishing, weekly, four-hour commute routine from her local up-state practice. Almost imperceptibly an affectionate relationship begins with one of her accidental students Jamie (a breakthrough performance from new-comer Lily Gladstone), a young woman of native ancestry who manages a remote farm and is evidently seeking some solace from a void of human interaction. Through slight, barely perceptible encounters and coincidences the lives of the four women cross and weave, in this muted yet affectionate celebration of small town lives and modest dreams.
Now, first things first – if you’re one for dramatic revelations and conclusions, for clear transformative three-act character arcs and resolutions then be warned – this is simply not the film for you. It’s the kind of story which is akin to curling up on a fire-warmed winter afternoon with a heavy-weave blanket, nursing a mug of steaming cocoa with a well-thumbed novel by Steinbeck or Cormac McCarthy to hand, minus the latter’s prevalence of ruthless violence. Like McCarthy it is ruthlessly confident in its pacing and structure, it certainly has a well-defined and curated overarching vision, championing a fidelity to the genuine dramatic lives of its participants, with all the quiet incidents and frustrations intact. Like all of Recihardt’s former work there is also an austere rejection of the standard dramatic model of engineered confrontation or resolution, including a resistance to any common weapons in the filmmakers arsenal, including a rejection of any hand-holding non-diagetic music until one final movement toward the end. So it’s the American equivalent of the Dardennes, of Ken Loach thankfully minus the political hectoring, all sprouting historically from the well-spring of Italian Neo-Realism, a holistic collection of the minor struggles and triumphs of live across these quietly captivating characters, or as one fellow movie-goer muttered to his partner as the credits rolled ‘life goes on, I guess’. I can’t in all honestly claim that all the threads are as gratifyingly stirring as the others, for me the highlight was clearly the Kirsten Stewart storyline while the weakest was the Michelle Williams interaction, her character and tale strangely amorphous and immaterial compared to what Laura Dern conveys with a lightly mannered sigh or Lily Gladstone signals with a darting glance of her mournful eyes.
I don’t know who sanctioned that hideous movie poster seen above, but I guess they have to push the established cast in a vain attempt to stir the docile masses out of their reality TV induced stupor eh? This year’s other quiet critical depth charge Hell Or High Water had its own specific beating undercurrent of economic malaise and frustration powering the story engine, empowering the protagonists to violate the law in that cathartic viewing way. Although you could consider them as companion pieces as Certain Women treads the same iconography of the forgotten by-ways and highways of small town America the energy arises from the internalized instincts of the characters, a reassuring shared glimpse into the lives of others, through which we can see some mirrored fragments of our trials and tribulations. I just love the sheer chutzpah of the film-making, in its own submerged, peculiar and idiosyncratic way. In the most moving section of the film Lily goes through the rituals of her day to day existence, conducting animal husbandry, estate management and domestic duties on her ranch, before seeing her new acquaintance Beth back at the evening class which is clearly at this point is the highlight of her life. Reichardt adamantly refuses to take shortcuts, ensuring that every liaison between the two is punctuated with the a montage of these daily rituals, and it is through this patience and fidelity to the real metronome of all our lives that a magical sense of connection emerges. Any other film, particularly those with any mandated Studio Executive interference would have those longueurs eliminated immediately, when in fact they are almost the entire point of the picture, building the rhythm of day-to-day routine which are elegically charged with unforeseen and unexpected interventions – a potential new partner, a financial success, a bereavement, a birth. I can’t really speak from any authority as I quite literally only saw a handful of films at this years festival out of the 250+ projects in the programme, but I am happy to see this wonderful film awarded some kudos from the festival panel, a well deserved plaudit and another step forward toward a quiet masterpiece that I’m sure Reichardt can deliver in the years to come;
* OK,you want a list? Then let’s do a list. How about we include Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Del Toro despite his recent disappointments, Lynne Ramsey, Noe and Refn of course, Haneke, Trapero, Shane Carruth, P.T. Anderson (despite the disappointment of the last mis-fire), Mungiu, Bigelow, the Coens, Lanthimos, McQueen, Alex Garland, Cuaron, the big screen MIA Soderbergh and on and on and on before we get into animation, current TV or documentary which aren’t exactly my forte….