Certain Women (2016, Kelly Reichardt)
I once was in a zombielike state, trudging aimlessly through a city and I spotted a woman in a dress. (Pink and white as I recall, but it was many years ago.) I didn’t follow her but we drifted in the same direction. I looked but didn’t stare, and it became apparent we were being drawn to the same focal point, a bar where people were gathered but weren’t boisterous and weren’t conglomerating, weren’t piled on top of one another like they sometimes are in town. I was close enough to hear her voice when she asked what was going on, and it was enthusiastically explained that there were bands upstairs and admission was cheap, and she should come up. They asked if she’d been there before. “No. I’m just wandering.” She spoke for me without ever meeting me. We wandered because we didn’t want to be alone. We didn’t know how to say that. It isn’t socially acceptable to say that. We found our way to cope, underneath some smoke and feedback. I think of that when I hear a character here, in this film, say that she entered a drab-looking classroom in a school where she wasn’t enrolled strictly because she saw people coming in. And when that same person, without ever wanting to harshly or briskly assert herself, occasionally gives a single person a clue to her personality, a sharp and winning wit she otherwise doesn’t expose because there are no obvious opportunities and she has no gift for seizing them, that stings. When she pushes herself to seize one, sensing a last chance, fully knowing it probably won’t have any effect on her day to day life which it doesn’t, that stings even more.
The most ethereal, weighty, even silent moments of Reichardt’s Old Joy are echoed in this much more ambitious portmanteau taken from three short stories by Maile Meloy, all set in an extremely palpable Montana, rife with beautiful and cold stasis; they’re given some concrete background connections but what really matters is their shared concern for the lost cause of communication, in multiple stages and kinds of relationships: the anonymous politeness or contempt taken on when it becomes impossible to say what has to be said. There are these situations, relationships, long-festering things in which it gets so hard to say something. But you have to say it. You have to try. You have to write the letter, no matter what the substance of it is. You have to show you mean it. (Think of The Straight Story, when the only way to build a bridge over such a breakdown is to conclusively demonstrate how important it is to you to make amends. Even if it could be taken as a gesture for your own benefit… it’s still unmistakably an act of love.) Story one is a suspense piece of sorts. Hostage negotiations; it’s riveting, thanks largely to Laura Dern and Jared Harris, but the essence is in the closure withheld from us till the film’s end. Story two is probably weakest but still vivid, about an unhappy marriage, the building of a house, and the ambivalent advantage-taking of a senile old man. It’s about deliberately ignored moral quandaries but it’s also about a failure to deeply acknowledge one’s intimates, about the despair of a retreat into the self.
But that last story. My fucking heart, dude. I almost couldn’t take it. If you’ve ever lived alone or been terribly lonely, you need to see this, and you need to be very careful when watching it. The desperation of Lily Gladstone’s stoic but achingly solitary rancher, and the clarity of her affection for a teacher she happens to meet (it’s implied to be a romantic crush, but it’s just as striking if you interpret it as just a longing for a platonic friend) without ever coming across as a creep mostly because of her refusal to be afraid of being one. And her snap-judged gesture of either disproportionate attachment or just a human need to acknowledge a fleeting connection she badly needed and still needs, and the conversation or confession she initiates that sits there and dangles in the air, no one sure of how to pick it up apart from just walking away from it — it’s beyond haunting, it’s alive, and fearlessly rendered by all involved.
The trucks, the stoplights, the desolate downtowns, the eyes, the cold breath under the sun, the morning. Human experience so vividly and compassionately expressed you feel it in the pit of your stomach; you breathe it.