Maile Meloy is a gifted writer. Her prose will often fixate on miniscule details for pages while other instances she will cover vast passages of time with the quick deployment of a sentence or two. She has a handle on how subtle gestures can leave a lasting impression, and how the rarity of those gestures can cause time to pass you by, leaving you to wonder where it all went wrong. Her pieces, from her short story collections “Half in Love” and “Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It”, are all melancholic, if not without a sentiment of hope.
Kelly Reichardt is a gifted director and editor, and she proves to complement Meloy’s text exceedingly well. It has a lot to do with Reichardt’s sensibility, which has always been characterized by a strong sense of place and an unusual capacity to highlight the periphery characters that orbit her central narrative. So often a character will enter into the narrative of her films for a brief spell and disappear outside the frame. But in that brief exchange, you gather an immediate impression from the most fleeting of gestures; they may have exited the narrative, but you sense a whole story going on outside the frame.
The three narratives adapted by Reichardt, as texts, would not appear to share very many narrative commonalities beyond their Montana setting. And within Meloy’s work, there’s not much in the way of interconnectedness within her short stories, less so when considering that Reichardt dabbles in both the aforementioned short story collections to compose Certain Women. But she does take some creative liberties with Meloy’s text that unites them within the same universe, or at least gives off that passing suggestion.
For practical purposes, Certain Women’s triptych is composed of the following: the first narrative, adapted from “Tome”, involves a lawyer (Laura Dern) dealing with a hostile client (Jared Hess) coping with the after-effects of a workplace injury. The second narrative, adapted from “Native Sandstone” sees a family inquire with a local about purchasing sandstone blocks, a proposition complicated by the subdued hostility between the matriarch (Michelle Williams) and patriarch (James Le Gros). The third narrative, adapted from “Travis, B.”, finds a ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) stumbling upon a night class headed by a young teacher (Kristen Stewart), with the two forming a gentle acquaintanceship over their late-night diner trips.
What I found most intriguing about Certain Women is how Reichardt jarringly transitions from one narrative to the next, yet unifies them through shared commonalities. This is most clearly displayed when a character from a preceding narrative appears in a subsequent one. It’s an interesting device because the way you absorb the reemergence of a particular character will alter your perception of each individual narrative, as well as how you are to digest the film as a whole.
Take the James Le Gros character as an example: he appears at the start of “Tome”, taking in a lunch-hour hotel session with Dern’s character. He doesn’t return to the narrative again (besides a phone call ending their relationship). Yet he’s the central patriarch of “Native Sandstone”. Because of how Reichardt cuts from one narrative to the next, you’re uncertain if his prior appearance in “Tome” figures into his history in “Native Sandstone” and you accept the strained relationship between him and his wife as a product of a tough situation (they’re dealing with their ambivalent and difficult daughter during their trip). Yet when Dern’s lawyer appears in “Travis, B.”, there’s the fleeting acknowledgement that these characters do indeed operate in the same universe, wherein Gros’ infidelities provoke greater questions about his loyalty to his wife and daughter.
I’m not suggesting that Gros’ narrative arch is even remotely close to being a primary narrative of Certain Women, but it’s among the several periphery narratives that give the picture unexpected thematic depth. Reichardt doesn’t compromise Meloy’s text, remaining true to their spirit and tone, yet clearly understands the value of bridging the gap between each story to create a wholly lived-in experience. You see this in the way she opens Certain Women on a shot of Montana mountainscape, with a train dividing the image into three parts. She then cuts to Dern’s character in bed, a dividing wall, and Gros in the lavatory, all in the same shot; she unites the land with her characters in a specific and visually sumptuous way.
The most inspired narrative liberty that Reichardt takes with Meloy’s text is evinced in the “Travis, B” narrative, wherein Lily Gladstone’s protagonist was originally conceived as a male character. There was an underpinned predatory aspect to Meloy’s short that made the work equal parts romantic as it was discomforting, as well as a detailed history that elaborated on the character’s deep-rooted loneliness and solitude. Reichardt cuts straight to the bone regarding this solitude and its corresponding loneliness by frequently capturing the character working the land, feeding the horse during the bitterly cold winter months. With Reichardt shooting on 16mm, it’s a texture with tactile emotion. In the absence of any sort of predatory aspect is stirring sense of unrequited longing. Gladstone and Stewart are equal parts impressive in their unassuming connection; they each capture the cosmic dissonance that separates them, yet all the same convey, as Meloy’s text puts it, the feeling of a completed jigsaw puzzle.
It’s essentially the feeling one gets when watching Certain Women, where its individual fragments come together to form a whole. It’s a tender film that understands adult behavior in a remarkably astute way. And it’s a notable accomplishment for Reichardt, who so often has worked at the fringes of contemporary American independent cinema. She’s one of our Great Auteurs and it’s due time for her to get that kind of recognition.