In her latest film, Certain Women, opening in the Bay Area Oct. 21, director Kelly Reichardt continues to tell stories about people on the margins, the disadvantaged and social misfits. In three sections based on three short stories by the writer Maile Meloy, Reichardt depicts ordinary women (Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart) leading ordinary lives in and around the town of Livingston, Montana.
Vast American spaces populate all of Reichardt’s movies. It’s the territory of her imaginative life, and of the artists who have influenced her.
“Do you know the photographer Robert Adams?" she asks during an interview in a San Francisco hotel suite. "I met him this summer. He photographed the West, and his photos really inspired me during Meek's Cutoff.” San Francisco's Fraenkel Gallery, which represents his work, states: “His work is largely concerned with moments of regional transition.”
Reichardt uses those same open plains and prairies to capture the emotional transitions of her characters. The first story in Certain Women concerns a lawyer named Laura (Dern) whose client, Fuller (Jared Harris), sued his company for worker’s compensation with limited success.
“The Jared Harris character, he's just someone who has made it into his 50s as a white man who completely can't believe that the system isn't going to work for him, and that it's just not fair," Reichardt says. Laura registers a mixture of disbelief, scorn and sympathy in response to Fuller. It’s a small moment writ large: Dern is both her character and an everywoman who understands the man’s dilemma better and more intimately than he ever will.
Some viewers might dismiss Reichardt's carefully observed worlds as trivial, the dull provenance of adulthood. But she recreates a lost, provincial place, the opposite of the one she sees on her New York City commutes. “I ride the subway and all the adults are playing video games the whole way home," she says, "sometimes ignoring their children to play them. Everybody has the sound on.”
Certain Women has the sound turned way down, often on mute. The Absaroka mountains rest in the background. The gray sky never shakes off the dusk of winter.
In Reichardt's films, she and her crew create an atmosphere that exists somewhere between the script and lived-in spontaneity. In her earlier work, narrative momentum was often sacrificed for that sense of spontaneity. Certain Women achieves something new in her oeuvre. The director balances the almost wordless quality of a film like Wendy and Lucy (2008) with more straightforward stories, ones that have easily recognizable beginnings, middles and ends.
Reichardt dismisses the suggestion that only the director is responsible for a film's atmosphere. “You're starting with the base -- whether it's Jonathan Raymond's writing [a frequent collaborator] or Maile Meloy's writing -- you're starting with a good base," she says. "Then all of sudden you see it unfolding. What I'm bringing to it is to not interfere with it, and to not get hung up on what I've imagined. Because the film has a life of its own outside everybody's control, right? So you plan and you plan and you plan, till you're completely ready, and then keep the door opens for what is going to surprise you in the scene.”
Lyrically surprising elements enter all three sections of Certain Women, but it’s the third story, based on Meloy’s Travis, B., that is genuinely stunning. Reichardt gives credit to the unpredictable weather. “It was a crazy windy day, and everyone was like, ‘Oh, we can't. We've got to reschedule,’" she says. "I was thinking if the brilliant sound guy can get the sound, the wind is going to help us. Because there's something about them trying to do this scene. Kristen [Stewart] could hardly keep her dress from blowing up over her head.”
Stewart plays Elizabeth, a law teacher commuting four hours at night to her class in a small town. Actress Lily Gladstone is a rancher with an irreproachable openness, and one of Stewart's students. A rapport develops between them; the audience watches it take place in just a few short scenes. Unlike so many fictional depictions of hoped-for connection, the anguish of love is rarely this raw and without vanity.
Reichardt accounts for the intimacy of her work as if she owes it all to chance. “Perhaps the space is being created for it to happen, and then it was just the actors," she says. "I was taken aback by both of them. I thought that they were just completely reacting to each other, and I think the wind of the day was helping.”
This deference to her collaborators (weather included) belies Reichardt’s hold on the psychological landscape -- and on the inner lives of her characters -- that brings the stories of Certain Women into resonant coherence.
Certain Women opens at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco, Friday, Oct. 21.