It’s always an interesting statement of values when a prestige home video label decides to release a recent film. Everyone agrees on Kurosawa, Lang and Welles, but which modern director would you put in their company? In America, the Criterion Collection has got behind Wes Anderson so consistently that it’s been a major help in establishing his reputation; when Criterion’s UK imprint released The Royal Tenenbaums late last year it felt completely of a piece with the Palme d’Or-winners and cult classics that make up the rest of the label’s output. The first new release on Criterion UK, then, is Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, an anthology film based on the short stories of Maile Meloy.
Whatever else you might say about this film, Reichardt, at least, deserves this status. In an era when most American directors use low-budget films solely as a method of getting Disney’s attention, she has remained stubbornly, laudably independent since making her underrated debut River of Grass in 1994. Over the years, her films have grown in technical confidence, become more overtly political and attracted more star names, including her regular lead Michelle Williams, who has now appeared in exactly half of Reichardt’s feature output. You can point to certain scenes in Certain Women – Laura Dern’s uneventful trip to a shopping mall, for instance, where nothing really happens but every musical cue and detail of the frame seems to increase our understanding of her alienation and stress – and say “That’s a Kelly Reichardt scene; it couldn’t be anyone else’s work”.
And yet her films have also changed a lot over the years. Even disregarding the anomalous black comedy of River of Grass, there are definite differences between breakthrough films like Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy and her recent work. Films like Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves have engaged with genre in a way the earlier films haven’t. They also exhibit a political consciousness, a critical take on the American mythology of self-sufficiency and the frontier, which was always present around the edges of her films. It’s just that, when you’re making a Western or a film about eco-terrorism, that engagement with American ideology has to move centre stage. Certain Women feels like a way for Reichardt to take stock of her work to date, and perhaps explore new ways forward.
The first story, starring Laura Dern as a lawyer struggling with a volatile, potentially violent client, feels of a piece with the low-key genre subversions of Reichardt’s recent work. In this case, the subgenre she’s playing with might be the 1990s cycle of masculinity-crisis thrillers (think Fight Club, or Falling Down, or indeed anything Michael Douglas released that decade). If I say Reichardt delivers a feminist take on this material, that shouldn’t be taken to mean the male character is unsympathetic. In fact, Jared Harris is heartbreaking as a man pushed to his limits by a brain injury that’s forced him out of work. In another film, he’d be the hero, but here he’s mediated through Laura Dern’s burned-out lawyer, struggling to help him even as her own life falls apart.
It all ends in perhaps the most low-intensity hostage situation since Principal Skinner and Mrs. Krabappel holed up in Springfield Elementary, but that’s not the real jumping-off point for the rest of the film. The really important detail is the man Dern is lying in bed with at the start. It’s Ryan, played by James LeGros, and in the second story, he is revealed to be the husband of Michelle Williams’s Gina. This connection doesn’t exist in Meloy’s original story, and by putting it right at the start Reichardt cleverly enriches the film’s quietest story, clueing us in to look for signs of a widening gap in the pair’s marriage. In its natural setting and simmering study of people growing apart, this section of the film most resembles Old Joy, but it’s not a step backwards. Reichardt’s handling of the story, the cast, and the subtext is much subtler than the earlier film, and considering that Old Joy wasn’t exactly bombastic to begin with that’s really saying something.
By now you’ll probably have a picture of whether you’ll enjoy Certain Women or not. Its virtues include painterly 16mm cinematography, sharp character insight and a rejection of cheap melodrama. Of its vices, you could reasonably say that a film this quiet and minimal deserves to be seen on the big screen without distractions, and some may find its short-story structure less satisfying than the director’s previous full-length narratives. I doubt that argument would survive contact with the last and most acclaimed story, though. A portrait of blossoming love between a young teacher and a Native American ranch-hand, it’s perfectly played by Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone, the former closed-off and defensive, the latter wonderfully open and yearning. Their life is as hard as the other characters in the film, but there’s a tenderness to the story’s telling that feels very new for Reichardt. Could this be where she goes next? Perhaps, perhaps not. For the time being, this is a bracingly sincere film that only cements the case for its director’s work. People often lament that American film seems to have no room for grown-up, unironic, realist films about ordinary people going through ordinary challenges, asking where is modern cinema’s Bob Rafelson or Hal Ashby? Well, it turns out, she’s right here.