CERTAIN WOMEN (2016, Kelly Reichardt)
[Sydney Film Festival 2016]
[4.5 out of 5 stars]
Reichardt’s film about loosely connected stories of four women living in small towns across Montana has the spare quality the director is known for. It’s slow, it’s quiet and feels as therapeutic as drawing a breath of cold country air.
The landscape plays an important role. It opens with a beautiful painterly shot of the mountains and a train passing by as the titles appear on screen. Trains are a recurring motif of the film. We hear and see them in the background at various points. It’s a nice emblematic touch because trains promise a freedom by its movement but confined only to the tracks it follows. You could say the same to the experiences of these women. Women who get talked over, ignored and rarely listened to. Expected to stay in their place even if not told explicitly.
When Gina (Michelle Williams) asks a man whether she can have some sandstone to build their house he talks directly to her husband sitting beside her. She tries to regain control of the conversation but an invisible wall has already been erected. In the end he agrees, but it doesn’t feel like her victory.
Recihardt’s minimal melancholic aesthetic and the stories of ignored women reminded me of Hammershoi’s paintings - a Dutch painter famous for his muted colour palettes and portraits of women in domestic interiors, many with their backs turned to the viewer. Ignored and faceless. Hammershoi and Reichardt share the same gift of dramatic restraint. Their focus on banality (even a hostage situation is beautifully mundane) is the kind of art that draws attention precisely because it doesn’t demand it. You feel the urge, as the viewer, to fill up the spaces it leaves empty.
Sometimes the actors fill these gaps themselves but it’s so nuanced you barely perceive it at first until the emotions come all at once. Lily Gladstone does this brilliantly in her final scene in the car. It’s a quietly devastating scene and all of the emotional weight is carried on her face. Hammershoi may capture sadness through the backs of his subjects but Reichardt’s camera captures it head-first. It is moving.