Drive, She Said
By Adam Nayman

Certain Women
Dir. Kelly Reichardt, U.S., IFC Films/Sundance Selects

The only one of Kelly Reichardt’s six features to not significantly feature a car is 2011’s Meek’s Cutoff, which has a preindustrial setting. In lieu of an automobile, its characters move through the Oregon landscape in a wagon train, with the director’s camera often placed in the same driver’s side position as the set-ups in her other more contemporary road movies. In River of Grass (1994), the scene in which stifled heroine Cozy is pulled over on the highway by a traffic cop reflects her life’s stalled trajectory—and is mirrored at the end of the film when a policeman orders her and her feckless new boyfriend to drive right back where they came from; Old Joy (2005) opens with Mark (Daniel London) cruising through Portland blaring Air America on his dashboard radio; the plot of Wendy and Lucy (2008) pivots on a busted engine belt. And then there’s the indelible shot in Night Moves (2013) where a trio of eco-terrorists motor away from the bomb they’ve planted while a tarp draped over their rear windshield creates an illusion of stasis—three deflated radicals, running on empty to nowhere in particular.

The most sheerly beautiful and haunting sequences in Reichardt’s new film, Certain Women, describe a person driving from one destination to another: an unnamed young Native American woman (Lily Gladstone) negotiating the distance from her small-town Montana home to the comparatively bustling city of Livingston (population: 7,000) and back again. She’s developed an affection for—or is it an attachment to?—the pretty adult-education instructor (Kristen Stewart) who’s been teaching a law course at the local high school, and in the absence of a cell phone number or other means of contact, she decides to make an overnight pilgrimage. As filmed by Reichardt and her wonderful cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt—shooting in 16mm—her journey is rendered in scrupulous, real-time realism, with a lyrical streak cutting right down the middle: pooling headlights and roadside neon give this scene the subtle feeling of a vision quest.

Adapted by Reichardt (without the help of her regular cowriter Jon Raymond) from a book of short stories by author Maile Meloy, Certain Women is a film that tells three very gently intersecting stories, all of which are set in and around Livingston. The vignette with the infatuated student and the teacher comes third, following the opening, seriocomic account of a lawyer (Laura Dern) who becomes involved in an unlikely hostage negotiation, and a seemingly interstitial, essentially plotless bit following a couple (James Le Gros and Michelle Williams) trying to break ground on a new bespoke home on the outskirts of the city. The third section is the longest, and also the most plangently emotional and conceptually dense, folding issues of class, economy, and race into a tale of unrequited love, and also successfully deglamourizing a major American movie star (Stewart, doing her best acting since Adventureland) in the process. But as wonderful as this segment is, its power is cumulative, building on the context and subtext of the preceding episodes; each of them advance a vision of the world in which bleakness and compassion coexist without cancelling one another out and female experience is tinged with ambivalence.

The casting of Dern in a Kelly Reichardt film always felt inevitable: it was just a matter of time before one of the most conspicuously intelligent and technically controlled American actors took her turn working for a director who favors those qualities in her performers. And yet it’s interesting to note that Dern’s Laura Wells is probably the first truly grown-up woman that Reichardt has foregrounded to date, following the woman-child subject of River of Grass and the disaffected post-teenage wanderers of Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves. Striding up the stairs at her law office to meet a client after slowly peeling herself out of bed with her married, philandering lover, she cuts the sort of rumpled, capable figure that her colleagues and movie audiences alike could take as a kind of postfeminist avatar—the career woman standing warily on her own two feet—except that as written and acted, Laura isn’t representative of anything in particular.

Laura is credibly annoyed with her latest client, Fuller (Jared Harris), a blue-collar worker whose hastiness in accepting a quickie settlement from his employer after getting injured on the job has left him waging a fruitless follow-up lawsuit. A scene in which Fuller quickly accepts the instruction of another male lawyer to give up the case after it’s shown that he’s spent months hounding Laura for help points to a culture of ingrained sexism; a follow-up bit where Laura basically says as much during a phone conversation cinches the observation with uncharacteristic punchiness. But Reichardt doesn’t let us take these weary double standards for granted: when Laura offers Fuller a ride home after he’s ditched at her office by his wife, their conversation veers into realms of emasculated humiliation and implied violence that puncture any sense of seen-it-all resignation: the scene balances Laura’s empathy for a man whose life has been unfairly destroyed with her horror at how bluntly he says he’s willing to lash out—which in turn anticipates his choice to storm his former place of employment, gun in hand, in a futile act of rebellion.

Suffice it to say that Reichardt, whose work has previously skirted genre (the road movie, the western, the downbeat seventies thriller), has never directed anything quite like the police standoff that ensues, which suggests a regional riff on Dog Day Afternoon, with the manic energy replaced by a down-in-the-mouth melancholy. Rather than playing the situation for dread, Reichardt torques it towards bitter, ironic comedy, as Laura puts on a bulletproof vest and heads inside despite a total lack of qualifications beyond her apparently placating maternal presence as a woman of a certain age. The different levels of trust, loyalty, and expediency embedded into the ensuing action are enough to support a longer movie, but as Certain Women is a work of compression, the situation resolves quickly, even though it casts a shadow: what does it say that Laura can be forced to go above and beyond for a man whose need for her help doesn’t countenance basic respect or attention? And when she ultimately hangs him out to dry, is it a betrayal or an act of self-preservation, or both?

The second section is shorter and wispier, entirely by design, following Gina (Williams) and Ryan (Le Gros) on an outing to a cabin whose owner (Rene Auberjonois, a living link to the New American Cinema of the 1970s) has a stockpile of sandstone that could be used in the construction of their new dwelling, provided they can buy it cheaply. Here, Reichardt treads close to sentimentality and pulls back—what seems to be a simple case of a Gen-Y striver cheerfully exploiting the older generation deepens into something at once more generous and troubling. Because we’ve already seen Ryan in the first segment as Laura’s bedmate, we suspect that his marriage to Gina is strained; because Gina is played by Williams—a Reichardt axiom—we know that her one-track desirousness is at least partially deceptive.

The juxtaposition of a bickering couple holding it all in and an isolated septuagenarian without attachments taps a reservoir of feeling that floods the essentially flat, non-dramatic action in implication. The languid back-and-forth cutting during the negotiation suggests Midwestern sociability strained to the breaking point, and there’s a devastatingly tender moment, after Auberjonois’s Albert demonstrates the call-and-response rhythm of the area’s birdsongs, where Gina seems suddenly taken aback by her own mission. Her status as a “certain woman” in the eyes of her husband and teenage daughter (Sara Rodier) is tied to a pushiness and knowledge of what she really wants that another film might easily enshrine or critique depending on its political slant; for Reichardt, Gina’s need to do things her own way is cause for neither celebration nor condemnation. But a quietly bravura long-take inside the family car as they head home nudges us to notice that for all Gina’s ability to get her way, it’s her husband who’s literally in the driver’s seat.

And so, Gladstone’s ranch hand behind the wheel at the film’s climax resonates all the more. With less institutional, economic, or familial support behind her than either Laura or Gina, she’s forging her way forward—except that her comparative lack of certainty is terrifying. The long, repetitive scenes of Gladstone tending a massive farm alone are purposefully mesmerizing in a slow-cinema way—she could be a rural Jeanne Dielman, except that it’s not clear if the household she’s keeping in clockwork order is even her own. Where Laura and Gina are relatively prosperous professional women, “The Rancher” (an end-credits designation that sounds more apropos for one of Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist Westerns) occupies an adjacent sphere of work. Her attendance at the night school class is a whim (she’s auditing), and the irony of her sitting through lectures on the legal exploitation of educators is compounded by the fact that she’s really only there to see Beth, whose detachment from the material is humorously evident to everybody but her most devoted student.

Stewart’s mannerisms as an actress are by now familiar, and can be used to greater or lesser effect by interested directors (Olivier Assayas is all-in at this point, building his bizarre new Personal Shopper almost totally around the star’s unique lack of affect). Reichardt gives Stewart an ideal role as a woman too distracted by her own very real frustrations—starting with driving four hours to and from a class she doesn’t want to teach—to notice the hypnotic effect she has on the kind stranger sitting across the table at the diner. When The Rancher tries to impress Beth by bringing a horse to the school and offering a ride to their weekly after-class coffee date, the imagery is borderline comic-iconic—a distaff Brokeback Mountain tableau—but what hurts is our knowledge that what’s clearly a transient and convenient (and for all that, perfectly nice and pleasant) friendship for one party is riddled with a mixture of more powerful impulses for the other. What’s crucial is that Reichardt doesn’t play any of this for tragedy—the pathos arises out of a collision of realities, specifically how one person’s unhappy detour can be another’s idea of encroaching destiny.

That Reichardt has been making movies her way and on her wavelength for nearly 25 years, and has only now really “broken through” beyond rarefied art-house circles due to her ability to wrangle A-list talent for her B-minus budgeted productions, is a testament to talent, self-determination, and judicious sense of adaptability—all of which could be descriptors of the people we see onscreen in Certain Women. If one measure of a great filmmaker is that you wouldn’t mistake a frame of her work for somebody else’s, Reichardt’s increasingly personalized variations on long-standing American indie tropes—purposeful tracks across variegated rural landscapes; characters whose small-stakes dilemmas signify outwards about their respective social and political moments; all of those cars piloted by lost souls without a map—qualifies her for consideration. If another is that they can keep surprising you despite that same familiarity, then Certain Women’s flashes of humor and optimism (it’s her funniest movie since River of Grass) fit the bill. She’s going to keep forging intrepidly ahead, but of all her movies so far, this may be the one that truly grows largest when viewed in the rear-view mirror.