Kelly Reichardt’s films speak with a particular and rather outmoded cadence, a sort of clenched-jaw Western laconism. American movies and American culture writ large no longer appear interested in such restraint; heroic pauciloquy died with Gary Cooper, or something like that. Our present heroes—and orange skinned villains—fill the air with unceasing clamor, armed with the gift of gab and hair-trigger. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se. A mythic America of tight-lipped fortitude probably never existed anyways, but it did form a national pop mythos as recently as a half century ago. As it fell out of vogue, cinema’s true believers largely retreated from multiplex screens and into the avant garde, though Clint Eastwood’s Sully was rightly hailed as a recent norm-deviating revival. Non-narrative cinema continues to offer modes of production and consumption amendable to restraint as an aesthetic and moral principle. The problem is that Peter Hutton’s or James Benning’s American landscapes probably aren’t coming to a theater near you (unless you live in Seattle, where the Northwest Film Forum is presenting a one-night-only, attendance-required selection of Hutton’s films next month). Their respective corpuses could not exist without the trail first blazed in Hollywood by someone like John Ford, himself an artist with a tendency to careen between laconism and good old Irish loquaciousness, but neither Hutton nor Benning possesses a conventional interest in storytelling that allowed Ford to thrive in a commercial industry. Enough with those pretty pictures, the people demand characters! Where is our Wyatt Earp? Where have all the strong, silent types gone? Kelly Reichardt knows.
Much ink will be spilled on Certain Women’s status as a Western and the movie is surely multivalent enough to support readings for or against generic classification, but let’s just take it as a given that Reichardt set out to make a neo-oater from the start. The opening shot observes a train rolling into town; we’re quickly introduced to an embodiment of the law in Laura Dern’s attorney; within a few scenes we have a hold up, albeit with a distinctly 21st century office park flavor. Reichardt uses Dern’s story, the first of three, to frame this milieu subtly within its mythic context. The afterlives of the West linger like half remembered dreams in this dreary city, embodied in the landscape (James Benning could have told you that) and in its women (that probably he couldn’t). Dern’s lawyer internalized an entire way of being and seems not to know it; Reichardt watches her readjust her scarf over a bullet proof vest because it’s perfectly natural but also because it is brave. As if by birthright, the four Montanan women at the center of Reichardt’s film inherit something of the West’s taciturnity.
All that quiet allows Certain Women to spend much of its runtime watching women watching: men, the sandstone earth, or Montana’s big sky reflected on glass. The effect of all that looking is the quiet accumulation of social detail. Note the way that Michelle Williams’s tracksuit confers on her character a city slicker status, which connotes wealth and yuppie pretension and undercuts her professed love of “authenticity.” But Reichardt also observes how Williams uses her morning workout routine as a ritual to indulge in a clandestine cigarette. In some way, it suggests that she does belong here. As a filmmaker Reichardt rarely permits the easy snicker, the simple characterization.
In the final piece of Reichardt’s triptych the women look at each other. Kristen Stewart is a young lawyer teaching classes on educational law far from home. She develops a tender, tenuous relationship with a local ranch hand, embodied by a halting and perfect Lilly Gladstone. Again genre archetypes (stranger-in-town, the law personified) manifest in less than likely people. Reichardt casts brilliantly across the board, but putting Stewart, the most modern of movie stars, in a role that obliquely suggests Alan Ladd or Randolph Scott registers as especially radical; she arrives, starts a relationship with a local woman—appropriately capped by a shared nocturnal horse ride—and must leave again. Everything they share is said in their eyes. It’s the stuff of movie myth, even if Stewart’s reason for passing through is resolutely of the moment (a law degree just isn’t what it used to be).
Reichardt’s plain spoken formalism has, for this viewer at least, often threatened to muzzle her films precisely when a roar seems necessary. She appears resistant to danger, unwilling to break the Doric austerity of her compositions, to shift into an aesthetically risky rhythm. Even the poetic gestures—wispy cold air floating along the sidewalk or the near pointillism of a horizon refracted through grainy film stock—are off-hand, hesitant and brief. A streak of false reticence perhaps runs through her characters too, who occasionally bear the world with Olympian quietude. To put it another way, I’ve harbored a suspicion that Reichardt shoots landscapes and is only tangentially interested in sketching the people who populate them. Certain Women gives the lie to that assumption. It crystallizes the Reichardt project, proving that people are inseparable from place, that character arises from myth, and that myth hums like a faint whisper in the land. Step into the wintry air and listen closely. Reichardt’s speaking in the silence.