Monday, November 07, 2016

CERTAIN WOMAN Is Certainly A Slow Moving, Artsy Indie

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

(Dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2016)

Kelly Reichardt’s sixth full length feature begins with a long shot of a train barreling through a mountain-filled Montana landscape. It’s a shot that’s lingered on with no movement except for the train as it approaches the camera.

As many shots are lingered on throughout, this image symbolically sets the slow, thoughtful tone for this drama based on three short stories by Maile Meloy from her 2009 collection, “Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.”

The first story concerns Laura Dern as a lawyer in Livingston, Montana, who is dealing with a desperate client named Fuller (Jared Harris), who has suffered a workplace injury and was screwed over his worker’s compensation. Despite that Dern’s character, also named Laura, has repeatedly told him that his former employer was legally absolved of paying him anything on top of the settlement he previously accepted, Fuller demands a second opinion. So Laura takes him to see another lawyer and because it’s a man, he accepts it when he tells Fuller the same thing she’s been telling him for eight months.

Later on the phone to her lover Ryan (James LeGros), who we briefly met in the film’s first few minutes, she laments: “It would be so lovely to think if I were a man, people would listen and say ‘okay.’”

However, Fuller isn’t through and later that night Laura is awoken by a call from the police alerting her that Fuller has taken a security guard hostage at her former place of employment. Outfitted with a bullet proof vest, she goes in to try and talk him down. Don’t expect any real suspense or action here, the situation gets pretty mundanely diffused.

The second story involves Michelle Williams, in her third film for Reichardt, as Gina, part of a married couple with a daughter (Sarah Rodier) who are camping near a plot of land on which they intent to build a house. Williams is married to LeGros’s Ryan, Laura’s aforementioned lover, but that never comes up again.

Instead the premise of this vignette revolves around the couple negotiating with Albert, an elderly gentleman (René Auberjonois, best known for the ‘80s sitcom Benson, and several Robert Altman movies) for a pile of sandstone on his property.

Gina is frustrated that Albert only regards Ryan in their request for the sandstone, but he agrees to give it to them. When they come to load it on to their truck, Gina waves to Albert who’s watching from his window but he doesn’t wave back.

Onto the third and final story, which posits a downbeat Kristen Stewart as Beth, a lawyer who is teaching a class on educational law in Belfry, Montana, that a local ranch hand named Jamie (Lily Gladstone) sits in on. Jamie happened upon the class while walking through town one night and obviously develops a crush on Beth, who obliviously fans the flames by going out to dinner with her at a nearby diner after class several times.

Jamie even brings one of her horses from her stable one night so that they can ride to the diner on it together. When Jamie learns that Beth has quit the job because of the long commute, Jamie drives to find her in Livingston. Jamie sleeps in her car overnight, then, via help from the same firm that Laura works at, tracks Beth down to her law office and approaches her in the parking lot in the film’s most awkward, cringe-inducing moment.

Although there are connections between these stories, they don’t satisfyingly intersect. We get a follow-up with what happened to Fuller in an epilogue in which Laura visits him in prison, and shots that loosely conclude the other narratives, but folks may be left wondering how or why these tales are interwoven. They indeed share the perspectives of marginalized women in the vast open spaces of Montana, but their personal connection is too abstract for proper impact.

If one embraces the slow pacing, and studies the intricacies of the acting (all the ladies work is sharp here, but newcomer Gladstone is particularly strong), they can get immersed in the subtle nuances on display – in other words, acknowledge it as a true art film – but that may take more patience and concentration than most people are willing to give.

Reichardt’s films, which include OLD JOY, WENDY AND LUCY, MEEK’S CUTOFF, and NIGHT MOVES, are all cut from the same artsy, contemplative cloth. They are character studies that offer slices of bleak life that often play to meager audiences at indie art houses. Her brand of minimalism isn’t meant for the multiplexes.

CERTAIN WOMEN is certain to baffle or bore (or both) many folks, and I myself had some issues with its length and some moments that felt off, but it’s the kind of movie that I’m glad somebody is still making. Its 16 mm look, shot by Reichardt veteran, cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, along with its parsed dialogue makes it feel more like real life than most movies.

That is both its curse and its charm.

More later...

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