A Life of Quiet Desperation
Certain Women stars Laura Dern, Michele Williams and Kristen Stewart with Lily Gladstone the only non-star in a starring role. The film is scripted and directed by Kelly Reichardt from an adaptation of two of the eleven stories in Maile Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It and one story from her collection, Half in Love.
Set in Montana with its broad high plains and mountains in the background, other than the absence of any significant traffic, this was not the extraordinarily beautiful Montana we drove through twice in the previous two years. This is a state viewed up close through a triptych of vignettes of the lives of four women living in a state in which Billings with its 100,000 plus souls is a huge metropolis.
Here is the way the film is described in the publicity: “The lives of three women intersect in small-town America, where each is imperfectly blazing a trail.” There are at least four misleading assertions in this one short sentence. The film is about four not three women, though it has three big stars and three stories strung together. Secondly, the lives of the women do not intersect, or barely and tangentially. It happens to be that Laura Dern’s lover in the first vignette is the husband of Michele Williams in the second one. And Laura works in a law office which Lily Gladstone comes across when searching for Kristen Stewart.
Other than these accidental and incidental crossings, there is virtually no intersection and inter-action in the movie. Each woman is akin to the very long train with which the film begins, each with its own engine and each acquiring more and more boxcars or experiences as the engine traverses across the plain. A prominent theme in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India was “only connect.” The theme of this film is “barely connect.” It is indeed a portrait of lonely lives in a lonely landscape in which people live side-by-side, interact functionally, but are imprisoned emotionally. The real depth of interaction is with the landscape which seems to diminish each of them as they experience the impossibility of rising like mountains over what seems like an endless plain.
Third, this is not a film about small-town America, but about small-town Montana where even Wyoming is viewed as foreign territory. Fourth, not one person blazes a trail. It is a film about women “at the end of the trail,” and it is a trail of desperation to escape in a territory which promised escape from the turmoil and troubles of the megalopolis cities of America. But it is a tale of certain women, very specific women, who share one common feature, determination and resilience, able to adjust to changing circumstances by resuming being themselves. They are not shape-shifters, but human beings who spring back to shape as they meet their share of disappointments in life. They are strong, tough, hardy and durable, but also vital and supple, but they are anything but change agents and more like lonely trees growing out of the semi-arid soil of Montana.
The men are another order of being. They seem incapable of hearing, taking advice or instructions from the women or negotiating with them. Laura’s hapless client who has been betrayed by life and an insurance company finally and suddenly accepts in a very short time the advice of a male lawyer offering a second opinion. The conclusion that his legal case was hopeless was the same advice that Laura had been drilling into him for eight months. The old lonely man in the second story agrees to give the pile of hand-hewn stones piled up on his property as the remnants of an old schoolhouse that he inherited when he bought the property to Michele Williams who had been determined to acquire them to build her fantasy house, but only does so when Michele’s husband reassures the old man that he does not have to sell the stones or give them away and, even then, can change his mind at anytime.
Finally, the male students in the small town’s extension class on educational law seem to learn nothing from Kristen Stewart. She is like the talking cereal box in the TV ad representing an insurance company teaching a class of young children about the benefits and security that the insurance company provides. But the children can only ask how the box eats and why he does not have a belly button. The educators cannot deal with the rights of students, but only with issue about their own legal benefits.
The film blazes its message in huge Honest Ed neon lights, but makes a tremendous but very quiet impact because of the subtlety of the details and its minimalist approach. The movie masters the challenge of making the interior lives of these women cinematic. It is a very intimate movie without any intimacy. There is virtually no action, for this is a film about inaction, about stalemates, about people whose lives have been frozen in the winter of Montana. It is a movie that makes boredom interesting by drawing our attention, not to the large picture screen, but to very small revealing moments. There are no technical innovations that I could spot, though plenty of shots of shuffling feet. This is a movie that makes understatement seem like an overstatement.
This is not simply a movie in a low key opposing modesty and restraint to that which is showy, but one that offers three stories of four independent women who live lives of quiet desperation. Subdued is too strong a word for the characters. The tone of each of the three stories is not simply muted, but the sounds slip across the field speckled with light snow and a few piles of hay to feed the horses. We hear the roar of the tractor and the dog barking as it chases it, but like the film, the dog’s bark bounces off the silence and the dog has no destination but to run after the moving tractor. That is about the level of action in the movie. Silence rather than words suffuse the film.
Other than the publicity blurb, I read that this was a film about the pioneering spirit of women when it is anything but. A pioneer explores a new territory, innovates in technology or initiates a new way of thinking. This is a film that makes Montana look old, weary and worn-out. Every single one of the main characters is at a dead end in their lives. Rather than standing on a frontier, the whole sense of the movie is that they are in a backwater but, relative to the male characters, they come across as having a degree of spirit. Their loneliness is experienced more acutely because the men act out their meaningless lives while the women convey a sense of at least wanting some intimacy.
In the first vignette, Laura Dern is a lawyer observed over a period of interacting with one client, once an artisan carpenter, who has been injured at work but cannot legally pursue an insurance claim because he accepted a small payment from the insurance company. In the second vignette, Michele Williams plays a frustrated wife alienated from her sulky and resentful teenage daughter and living with but estranged from her husband even as the family camps in the Montana wilderness. In the third vignette, Kristen Stewart, the only member of her family who went beyond living off unskilled labour at the bottom of the employment pool, who has crawled up and achieved a law degree, finds that the only job she has been able to land is teaching educational law – of which she knows virtually nothing – to a motley tiny collection of adult students who presumably are educators but with no desire to become educated. Out of loneliness and with nothing to do, Lily Gladstone, who works caring for horses, wanders into her class and becomes enchanted by another female whose disenchantment with life is on full display.
I should not have written that this is a film absent of intimacy. Because there are indeed two dimensions of real intimacy on display. One is of Lily Gladstone with the horses she cares for and her dog. The other is with the landscape. In fact, the landscape is probably the most powerful presence in the movie. There are probably more shots of the spaces than of any of the characters.
There is also a sense that the film is also about the art of filmmaking, a very lonely profession that starts with the filmmaker falling in love with and/or writing a script and spending what seems like an eternity by oneself envisioning and blocking out the film cinematically. Then the director moves onto a different level and shares the activity of making the movie with a very large group of collaborators, only, in the end, to be thrust back onto your own resources and your own loneliness when the editor enters the editing room and returns to communing with himself or herself.
Whereas, Reichardt emerges with a highly successful result, her characters on screen end up facing a future even more bleak and miserable than the one they had when the stories began.