HERE ARE THREE stories about four women. Their stories are only tenuously linked by the dull, empty monotony of the land and by relationships that, like the endless trains and trucks that rumble across the landscape, seem to go nowhere.
Director KELLY REICHARDT (who also wrote – adapted from a book of short stories by Maile Meloy – and edited the film) frames her scenes and layers her narrative with an artist’s precision. (On multiple occasions, we see her subjects half obscured by hazily reflecting glass, as if to suggest that our understanding of people is only one of snatches and glimpses). She (and as a result we, the viewers) regards the slow ebb and flow of the lives before her like a curious observer, one removed from the action…an anthropologist observing the mating rituals of small town America.
The first few frames of the movie neatly summarise its themes. We witness a massive train (one of many throughout the movie), a vast mechanical divider, slicing diagonally across the flat winter-hard landscape. Far way in the distance, are the snowy outlines of the Montana mountains, like the walls of silence that hem in the inhabitants. The scene shifts indoors. On either side of another wall, two lovers are dressing themselves in post coital silence.
These silences, or the inconsequential dialogues, are the emotional walls that divide partners and lovers. This may be Montana, but it’s really Carson McCullers’ territory where the heart is forever a lonely hunter.
The first of the three stories centres around Laura (the always compelling Laura Dern). She’s at the end of one relationship; and, despite her studied indifference, is being courted by Fuller (Jared Harris of “The Crown” and “Allied”), her client. He’s a sad, snivelling, needy, emotional wreck, whose life has been ruined by an uncompensated work-related accident and a shredded marriage. He lives in a fantasy world where his legal troubles can be put right and where she’ll succumb to his neediness. It’s a relationship. Of sorts. The lover and the indifferent beloved.
This same sort of unromantic, unrequited, one-way love maps out the relationship between an indifferent student lawyer, turned part time teacher, Elizabeth (Kristin Stewart, underplaying her role to the point of near invisibility) and a drop-by student (a tremendous Lily Gladstone, whose forlorn agony is the movie’s emotional touchstone). The student’s life – she’s a stable hand…not even given a name – seems to be one of unvarying sameness. There’s a numbing monotony to her daily routine; and you wonder whether part of her attraction to Elizabeth is that she represents a break in the routine…something to do, someone to talk with, a means of shifting the inevitability of life’s arc, a warm body to brake the snap of winter.
Even Gina (Michelle Williams) who is part of a (more typical) family unit: mother, father and daughter, lives in her own world of silence and apartness. The three of them share a house, a camping tent, an extended family. But they don’t share a life. For reasons that are really not relevant, Gina lives in her own world, excluded from the cosy relationship between her husband and daughter.
But, like Elizabeth and Laura and the student, she does as we all do: simply carry on.
The movie presents us with a slice, a moment, in the narratives of their lives. We are privy only to hints of the pasts of these four women. As to what lies in store for their future, director Reichardt’s depressing suggestion is simply, more of same. Like the trains and trucks that forever rumble through their towns, their lives will simply rumble on. Monotonously, unvaryingly, undisturbed by the catharsis of love.
This is an intelligent, heartfelt if distressing evocation of loneliness and anomie. But it’s also a bit dull. Reichardt’s distanced observation of her subjects feels cold. It’s intellectually engaging but emotionally un-involving. Some of the stories could have ended thirty minutes before they did…or two hours after.
Indeed, it’s one of those movies that’s better when you think about it than when you’re actually seeing it (probably the opposite to the ever loved “LaLa Land”)
CERTAIN WOMEN. Dir: Kelly Richard (“Night Moves”). Screenplay: Kelly Richards (based on the stories by Maile Meloy). With: Michelle Williams, Kristin Stewart, Laura Dern, Lily Gladstone. Cinematographer: Christopher Blauvelt (“Night Moves”)