Pioneer Women

Certain Women (2016)

In 1856, my great, great, great-grandmother crossed the Rocky Mountains in one of the first Mormon handcart companies. She had traveled from Glasgow to Liverpool to Boston to Iowa. Somewhere along the way, she sold her wedding ring for a sack of flour. I grew up being told that along the Rocky Mountains, before she reached Idaho, she sat down on the trail, in the after-dust of the handcarts, and told the company to go on without her. She was 24 and pregnant. I’ve always imagined she was very matter-of-fact about it. I hear her telling her husband she would rather stay back and die in the same voice she told him they were out of corn, or the handcart wheel needed repairing, or there was a rattlesnake in a bush.

I spent twenty-four years living in the rocky mountain region: a block of states that make up the most diverse terrain and climate in the United States. To understand what it is like to live there, you must appreciate what it is like to drive six hours—through mountain peaks, miles of desert terrain, red rock formations, salt flats, and forests—only to remain in the same state. In my experience, the distance of the land is part of the very makeup of its people. The summers are hallucinogenic-hot and dry, and your body feels the pressure of the land the same way you can experience claustrophobia in a city. People pride themselves on their endurance and stamina. Even if it snows six feet, there never are any snow days. Maybe it’s a hand-me-down from our ancestors who broke the land first for us, or maybe it’s just how we’d like to be seen.

Kelly Reichardt’s sixth feature film, Certain Women, is a triptych based on the short stories of the Montana-based writer Maile Meloy. In the film, Reichart captures the quiet desperation, perseverance, and grace of a community of women living in Montana and doing their best to navigate through the struggles of day-to-day life. The poet Muriel Rukeyser once famously said that if women told the truth about their lives and experiences, “the world would split open.” Through lightly intersecting stories, Reichardt shows us just this, while exploring the barriers we place between ourselves and others, with fierce emotional precision.

In the first story, we are introduced to Laura Wells (played by Laura Dern), a lawyer in Livingston who spends her days trying to appease her sulky client, a man named Fuller, who has fallen on his head in a workplace incident, lost his job, and is experiencing his first instance of systemic injustice. The Montana that Wells resides in is like a wintertime Stephen Shore photograph: sleepy strip mall parking lots and miles of untouched countryside are pinned beneath vast stretches of sky. Reichart intentionally shot on 16mm film so that we could see the texture and contrast of winter; the grime of rock salt and dead bugs stained on Wells’s windshield, and the lint on her sweater. As a single woman in a male-dominated industry, Wells sees the reality of her predicament as clearly as Reichardt does. She accepts the harsh reality that if “I were a man I could explain the law and people would listen” because there is no other option available to her.

Wells is a backboard for Fuller’s verbal tantrums, his threats to make others pay for what has been done to him, and his musings that “all there is to do is buy a machine gun and kill everyone.” Wells tolerates Fuller’s behavior not just because she is his lawyer, but because she is a woman and is expected to. Some reviewers have called Dern’s character “big-hearted,” and although I do think she feels for Fuller’s situation it is too simple an interpretation, and no better than saying all women are innately compassionate or have a desire to bear children.

Fuller suffers from the vanity of the privileged, believing that in his moment of suffering he is the only person who has suffered. When Fuller breaks into a company building and takes a security guard hostage, Wells is called in by a male police force to draw Fuller out—an action they deem too dangerous for themselves. At the site, Wells is strapped into a bulletproof vest and handed a map, never giving any indication that this is something she is comfortable with or has entirely agreed to. In how many films have we seen a heroine entrusted with the task of mollifying an uncontrollable man or monster? Reichardt allows us to see the double bind: in order to be useful, Wells must temporarily forgo all agency over her body and sacrifice her personal safety—a reality that most women in this country, sadly, are not stranger to.

In an interview with Slant Magazine, Reichardt said that she is most interested in exploring “what is our relationship to each other. Are we in this all together or are we just supposed to make our way, keep our blinders on, and not care about the person standing next to us?” Wells is grappling with the same question when she visits Fuller in jail after an extended period. He is lonely, has lost his wife, and asks Wells why she hasn’t written. Wells can only respond that “she just didn’t know what to say.” It’s possible that Wells’s statement is a comment on the failure of language to provide adequate comfort to those experiencing pain, but what is more discernible to me in these scenes is Wells’s struggle to determine how much of her inner life she is comfortable giving to Fuller with no foreseeable benefit.

Attempting to bridge the self-protective barriers I’ve placed around myself, in order to see my own emotional makeup in others, has been one of the primary obstacles in my life, and Reichardt allows us to see the difficulty of adult connection while never moralizing. She asks us to consider our obligation to those who suffer. What levels of selfishness we are comfortable with? Is it enough to bear witness to another person’s suffering; or are we, as witnesses, obligated to do more?

In the second story of the film, Michelle Williams plays Gina, a woman camping out with her husband and teenage daughter on riverside property that she has recently purchased for a part-time home. You don’t need to catch that Gina’s husband is the man Laura Wells is sleeping with to understand that there is a strain on the family. Williams is distant from her husband and teenage daughter (who seems to resent her mother more than the average teenager does). Williams is the reverse unhappy housewife and holds her position (obligation?) as the sole financial provider for the family like a weight around her neck. “No one asked me to help, but I kinda figured it out myself,” she tells her daughter.

Even though Gina has a desire to build her home “right”—only sourcing local materials and using plants native to the ecosystem—she has a disconnection from the land and the damage that she is causing it that is similar to what she is experiencing with her family. Gina and her husband descend somewhat vulture-like onto the property of Albert, a man experiencing the early stages of senility who owns a heap of pioneer sandstone Gina is eager to buy. Even though Gina recognizes she should bring an offering to Albert, she doesn’t. Her expressions of quiet frustration, as she tries to lead Albert into a business deal and away from scattered small talk, tell us everything we need to know about her: her desire for the acquisition of the sandstone is larger than her sympathy for Albert’s condition, what he has lost, and is losing.

It’s easy to judge a character’s motivations and actions on screen, but when I watch a Reichardt film, I’m reminded that we are all just doing our best to find our way against tremendous odds. After Gina takes the rock off Albert’s property, she admits guilt, but rejects the opportunity to give it back because “someone else will just take it.” We end the story with the image of her standing on her property staring at the sandstone with an unreadable gaze. She has guests over but stands away from everyone. Although the rock has been moved, it’s still the very same heap of chaos. No rooms have been constructed, no relationships improved. Whether Gina is feeling satisfaction or sorrow—more likely some combination of the two—she is still very much alone.

In the last slice of the film, we open on a female rancher (Lilly Gladstone) who is working alone in the middle of winter caring for horses. The rancher’s need to break the crushing monotony of her solitude leads her to a continuing education course taught by overworked lawyer Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart).

Loneliness is like winter, and we feel the rancher’s desire to form a deeper intimacy and connection with Travis as clearly as we can feel the cold, frozen landscape that surrounds them. Friendship is too strong a word to describe the interaction that occurs between them on the handful of occasions they spend together. Travis is always in a hurry and is fixated on the distance from place to place. She can only see the four-hour drive from her main job to Livingston, the divide between a job selling shoes and a “good job” as a lawyer, the widening gap between herself and her female family members, and the difference between herself and the rancher.

Travis reminds us a little of a younger version of Reichardt’s first two characters. In her pursuit of achievement, Travis has lost sight of what exactly she wants, and is realizing that wealth and security do not necessarily mean a happier life. The rancher (who is never given a name in the short story or the film) has a connection to the land and her feelings in a way that the other women have learned to ignore. One evening, the rancher brings a horse to class so that Travis can enjoy a ride to the diner. She tells Travis to “don’t think” and just do. It isn’t impulsivity that guides the rancher’s actions, rather a trust that her emotions and decisions will lead her to the right place. She allows herself to be vulnerable and isn’t preoccupied with looking foolish or acting “appropriately.”

After Travis drops the class because of the distance of the drive (or perhaps the developing intimacy), the rancher goes to Livingston to find her. In dark, half-lit scenes, we watch her wander the streets alone, juxtaposed beside glimpses of couples dining inside warm and brightly lit restaurants. In these scenes, the rancher reminds me of the prototypical cowboy-outsider in a western film, but instead of seeing the rancher’s independence and self-reliance, we see how isolated and lonely she really is.

It doesn’t seem to be acceptable in our society to admit our need for one another unless it fits into a clean Nicholas Sparks model of heteronormativity. When she finally does find Travis the rancher admits “if I didn’t start driving, I knew I wouldn’t see you again, and I didn’t want that.” Regardless of whether the rancher is romantically attracted to Travis, or is longing for a deeper female friendship, Travis is unable to acknowledge or shoulder her need. Travis’s cool silence is reminiscent of Wells’s a few scenes before, and it’s tragic because we sense she could benefit from the relationship (by stepping outside of her own self-absorption) as much, if not more, as the rancher. They need one another.

Suffering is what unites us. The stories of our victories and defeats (and the murky middle-ground) formulate our collective truths and are embedded in our identities. My great, great, great-grandmother, Maria Brown Wright, eventually stood up, finished the trek to Utah, had nine children, and lived to be 81. The image of her sitting helpless and defeated in the dirt, however, is what I’m always drawn back to. I’m not sure why this is, but I think it’s because I see myself most clearly in that moment beside her. I need her story to understand mine. Adrienne Rich said that when a woman tells the truth about her experience “she is creating the possibility of more truth around her,” and I think we, as women, need this community of openness now more than ever.

During Sundance press interviews, Reichardt stated that Certain Women isn’t a political film, rather a “personal film of the small little life politics of everyday struggle.” Even though the spaces between the women in Certain Women are vast, Reichardt allows us to see how much they need one another; and by seeing the missed connections in their lives, we see the disconnection in ours. Reichardt is a master because she gives us permission to hope that her characters will find one another. She gives us hope that we’ll find those connections ourselves. And despite that certain impossibility, she reminds us that none of us are totally lost, just still finding our way.