CERTAIN WOMEN (2016)
dir. Kelly Reichardt
Film Science, Stage 6 Films,
IFC Films, Sony Pictures Worldwide
A long static shot of a train in the Midwest—Montana it is—and that cinematic refrain at once recalls the names Lumière and Benning. Its quality is decidedly ‘actuality’, the passage of time and all that. It is slow. This is slow cinema. Turn the camera on and see what happens. But perhaps that is an unfair reduction of Reichardt’s prowess as a sometimes auteur and part time tripod operator. I adore the actuality in the avant garde, but when woven into the fabric of the Indie Festival Drama it is rendered damn near insufferable. Shall I mirror the attempts to feel authentically blue collar and Midwestern? I should say pert near insufferable. This slowness, this quality of the actuality, is window dressing for mannequins, short hand for something deep to gussy up the performances, which don’t it need it by the way, but when stripped of the faces of Dern, Williams, Gladstone, and Stewart, it reveals the utter lack that defines CERTAIN WOMEN. We move from the train to shots of the town, still and silent but screaming: Midwest! The iconic sort from Hopper paintings used as jacket designs for Sherwood Anderson paperbacks. We wind up smack dab in the center of that other perennial staple of the IFC-Sundance Stank: wordless, alienated sex, or rather alienated post-coital moments. Again, framed like a Hopper: two bodies in separate fields, different lines of vision, both within frames within frames. Laura Dern slips on some clothes, grins, and pauses for Reichardt’s camera, letting us transform the lumps and crags into a landscape of the face, a beautiful moment of respite amid the doldrums of Reichardt's meanderings.
We move to the office, just enough shots to hint a whole world. Attempts to capture the locale’s rhythms but reduced to more static shots. There’s no rhythm in their cutting together either. No, movement won’t make an appearance until the third Certain Woman shows up; the part of this episodic adaptation that should have been cut loose from the dead weight that drags it down. Eventually we arrive at the dramatic bits, the fucked-over working class hero who’s also a chauvinist, difficult to see as anything other than an abstraction of the proletariat. There’s a gun, a hostage, some marginal figures that suggest the Midwest is far more ethnically diverse than the Anglo Saxon settlers, all in the predictable flattening of pace, momentum, or sensuality. It’s never in tune with its moments, always alienated from them; that critical tedium for art’s sake. It is in these moments, the cops at night outside the office building, the strangeness of the whole affair on full display, that I am struck by the profound desire to read these stories that are adapted here. I bet they’re magnificent. My fingers begin to compulsively hit the timeline button on my remote to orient myself to how much time is left. The images on the TV screen reduced to background ambience as I check Twitter on my phone.
The second Certain Woman materializes in the woods in early morning. The light in the trees and birdsong. I readjust to give this one a chance. Michelle Williams is as interesting to behold as Dern. Subdued performances that hint at great depth, unspoken complexity like the best of short fiction. Interest quickly evaporates. We move through molasses, waiting for the film to catch up with me—I’ve already gotten whatever its giving and I’m lost again in thinking about what other films I want to get through before the year is out: CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR; RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN. Should I rewatch LEMONADE before I finalize my top 10? Can these things ever be final? My fingers flirt with the fast forward button. I’m no longer plugged in; I’ve foreclosed uncritical experiences but sure that I won't miss anything.
The third sequence starts, again compelling in the facial expressions of Lily Gladstone, a performer so talented that they move the needle on this film form forgettable to interesting. The uncertainty, the mesmerizing brilliance of performing shyness. God damn, I bet these stories are superb. There’s a rhythm to this one: the repetition of the barn and the classroom and the diner. The stark beauty of the flat snowy plains. The movement of the horses, unscripted, unrehearsed. I could look at their faces all day, despite my frustration with watching millionaires play blue collar Ordinary People. As phony as Stalinist paintings, every movement calculated. Stewart’s use of the rolled up napkin like Brando’s glove in ON THE WATER FRONT. Empty contrivance grasping at naturalism. Method acting be damned.
A radical cinema would be filming poor, rural queers in something other than this slow, static, boredom. A cinema of stares as indexes of deeper meaning. IFC-Sundance is to working class rurality what Hubert Bals and the E.U. are to the "Global South": they’ll throw money at your project but under the condition that you excise all pleasure, all sensuality, juries like to see misery or at the very least coldness.