Kelly Reichardt's Animal Kingdom: "Certain Women"

Kelly Reichardt’s adaptation of three Maile Meloy stories, Certain Women, has several affecting moments that may either clobber you on the spot or explode like an unexpected heart seizure hours or days after first seeing it. But at its conclusion before the credits roll, its dedicative coda cuts deeply for any longtime admirer of the filmmaker: “For Lucy”–in reference to Reichardt’s dog and longtime companion, who had an impact onscreen in Old Joy and then more prominently as Michelle Williams’ titular costar in Wendy and Lucy. Certain Women‘s concluding message is no less moving as an artist’s indulgence than Martin Scorsese dedicating The Age of Innocence to his father Charles and Kundun to his mother Catherine, after their respective deaths, both of whom viewers familiar with Scorsese would recognize as significant players and influences throughout his previous work. But here, similar to Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog from last year (itself, while documenting the artist’s relationship with her pet, is dedicated to her recently departed husband, Lou Reed), is an acknowledgment of kinship to an animal.

Reichardt, with whom I briefly spoke by phone, points to an early scene in Certain Women after Laura Wells (Laura Dern), a lawyer who’s spent a long day tolerating her injured client William Fuller (Jared Hess), lies on her couch watching TV with her own dog. While some viewers see Laura’s exhaustion and exasperation here, Reichardt says, “It’s a moment of healing and warmth.” The relationship between Laura and the creature is mute, their pillowed heads gazing in different directions, but a close-up of Laura’s foot gently brushing the dog’s fur conveys respite and closeness much more assured than a midday motel room liaison she earlier had with a non-committal married man, Ryan (James Le Gros). “While there’s miscommunication between people,” Reichardt adds, “with animals, if you treat them well, they just bond with you and are devoted.” In the uncertainty of “conversing” with animals there’s nonetheless a certainty there absent from dialogue with other human beings. Reichardt mentions how this problem plays out later, in the film’s third chapter, between a ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) and an Education Law night school teacher and lawyer, Beth (Kristen Stewart). “The rancher works with animals, paying attention to them, talking to them, all day, and unfortunately assumes that this is how things will work out with [Beth.]”

Certain Women examines the discourse inherent within historicity, building on her overreaching themes. This contemporary anthology is as much about the historical frontier as her 19th century Oregon Trail adventure Meek’s Cutoff (2011), the opening featuring a painterly mountainous landscape as a train, the Iron Horse, slowly inches forward. The illusion of stasis makes this frontier appear “finished,” like one of the murals we see decorating a prison’s walls later in the picture, but life in its infinitesimal particulars trudges on, unable to catch up for a defining, complete perspective and make itself part of such a mural, fashioned to ideals of completion and identity. Vestige relics show up as centuries-old sandstone and baffling royal lineages (a night security guard is related to the Samoan royal family. “14 people have to die for me to be king.” “How likely is that?” “Not very.” So runs a wonderfully droll Reichardt dialogue exchange), while language’s manifold avenues, bound in law documents and stuffed in college courses, set absurd boundaries of definition and ownership, as the unfathomable horizon looms and whistles through indifferent calls of nature. The silence and stillness of animals, regarded and regarding by plain sight much as Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s camera does, is the most assuredly declarative statement here.

While Certain Women‘s three stories are loosely connected, it’s by the most threadbare relations: Laura Wells deals with her injured client Fuller, who won’t accept a Tort case regarding his former employer (he can’t bring a case because he accepted the initial–and inadequate–settlement sum); caring for the burdensome and unraveling Fuller marginalizes her personal dramas, such as the affair with Ryan, almost completely out of the frame, as we see when Laura’s sleep is interrupted by the police, asking her to cooperate with them after an armed Fuller has broken into his old employer’s office, taking the security guard hostage. The second story follows Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams), who argues with her husband (who happens to be Laura’s lover, Ryan) and daughter while approaching a lonely, and possibly senile, landowner Albert (Rene Auberjonois) for some unused “native stone” that would make her new home more authentic. The third story involves the rancher, Jamie, whose wandering eyes lead her into a night class (for teachers) taught by Beth; after these classes, they eat together, the infatuated Jamie listening to the reticent Beth describe her problems, much of which have to do with an arduous commute between these rural environs and her home base of Livingston (where Beth works in a law office down the street from Laura Wells). The associations are loose but spiritually sympathetic. The film’s curious structure folds together as a perfectly consonant organism.

Characters in Reichardt’s work are dwarfed and hushed by their surroundings, dialogical problems an afterthought to a spatial gamut ranging from Nature to prosaic urban development. People run into the unknown woods in flight from submergence with public liturgy: Old Joy‘s camping retreat, Wendy and Lucy‘s nightmare of entrapment on the cusp of a northbound journey, and Meek’s Cutoff‘s lost pioneers trying to outrun the United States’ westward expansion, the mordant joke being that, as they seem lost and to be going in circles, we know that the Union will catch up to them in about a year’s time.

At the end of such journeys we do not get hopeful political solutions, but the bafflement and engulfing awe concretized in Meek’s Cutoff as a Tree of Life, an enigmatic natural root stretching to cosmological origins. The fragility of connections and relationships, presently meaningful and so arbitrary and ridiculous, are caught and suspended by the camera gazing at the gazer’s longing. Reichardt, long based out of Portland, undoubtedly conveys a leftist social conscience, progressive talk radio acting as an ironic Greek Chorus in Old Joy as the film depicts not simply economic disparity so much as a disparity of existential fortune between two old friends; the same with Wendy and Lucy‘s ne’er-do-well drifter at last finding her beloved lost dog safe in a neighborhood of big backyards and Prius cars, and Night Moves‘ activists using the pristinely furnished restroom of an affluent suburbanite from whom they’re buying a boat (with cash, “the poor peoples’ money,” as one character puts it).

Reichardt’s is a style that’s absolutely absorbing, and as such, remarkably spiritual in a way that elevates her above topicality. The activist documentaries screen in Night Moves are probably in line with Reichardt’s worldview, though her outlook is like Certain Women‘s sun, struggling to fully illumine through winter clouds. Night Moves in particular–it’s the namesake of Arthur Penn’s classic 1975 noir where Gene Hackman’s cuckolded investigator, asked who’s winning a football game, replies, “No one; one side’s just losing slower than the other”–dealt with the frustration of progressive action (what one could call terrorism) parallel to ideology; like Dostoyevsky’s philosophical idealists in Demons and Crime and Punishment, these characters end up destroying each other and psychologically maiming themselves. It’s almost as if Reichardt, whose parents were Miami Dade police officers, has a pessimism precluding the progressivism surrounding her. She’s known for being reluctant to discuss politics in interviews, and while her films brim with political text and subtext, she has trouble articulating a perspective because, she admits, maybe they shouldn’t be reduced to words.

In Certain Women more than ever, Reichardt writes with her eyes and pays attention to her characters’ optics, including a rare literal POV shot as Fuller, whose concussive accident has resulted in blurred vision, struggles to read an appointment slip handed to him. Fuller’s deficit is apparent, particularly relating to women (he seems neglectful and even hateful towards his quiet wife and, most pointedly, won’t listen to Laura’s counsel for months, but immediately defers to the same advice given to him by a Billings attorney who happens to be a man). Privileged his whole life as a white male, Fuller’s reactance is to “get a machine gun and kill everyone” (or rather, a rifle that may not be loaded and take a security guard hostage).

But there’s a congruence of his confusion and displacement to a lost animal, as a dog portrait rests behind him when he first talks with Laura (behind whom is an ornament of a white owl, symbol of knowledge). He has a pitiful lost dog quality, and Laura, obviously a dog person, projects that onto him. When, in Billings, he demands that Laura drive him home after his wife kicks him out of the car, Laura’s displeasure is warranted but, offering him food (and leaving him in the car as she strolls through the mall), she might as well be dealing with a stray she–as a dog person would–assumes is benign, however infuriating is his lack of reflection.

Fuller and Wells establish how hard it is hold either hold focus (literally for Fuller) and how easy it is to lose oneself in diaphanous images, reflections upon reflections as faces are photographed through windows. Later, the rancher Jamie even falls asleep at the wheel as she dreamily looks into that gulf and drives into it, before the horizon’s indifferent subsumes the engine’s rough mumbling. Gina, stressed about building her house, retreats into the world of coyotes, quail, and water, but while she projects the quail’s “answer” to their “question” (Albert mentions how their call sounds like “How are you? How are you?” Gina answers for them, “I’m fine, thanks!”) and tries to assimilate with the environment’s timelessness, she’s still mired with the unsettling familial foundations that will underlie her house more than the sandstone she acquires. In Laura’s car, the apoplectic Fuller greets the film’s first music, Jimmy Buffett’s “Boats to Build” on the radio, with infantile tears. He’s hopeless in his downward spiral, the dry surroundings (held by Reichardt as the car drives away from us) a reminder that, despite the demands of boat building (we learn Fuller is a master handyman), there’s nowhere for him to sail.

Certain Women explores the contradiction of unknowable, imprisoning geography and the sense of entitlement people have to it; the glory of Manifest Destiny finds its sterile, slow-moving progeny in the manner of half-empty parking lots and fast food. Fuller is suspended of his privilege and ends up a disturbed terrorist in his own backyard, as the former Nez Perce inhabitants, colonized within their own homeland, now hold sacred Pow-Wows for the amusement of shopping mall audiences or, like Jamie (Gladstone is of Nez Perce heritage), are integrated into the frontier mythos and romance. Reichardt mentioned to me that “just as Los Angeles plays itself, Montana plays itself.” We see the tacky cowboy apparel shops, marking a flimsy colonized “heritage” spiritually hollowed by modernity. Historical contexts and incidents are catalogued by neglected. As Beth lectures her class about Education Law–mentioning mandates for public education that go back to the 17th century and up through social dissidence during Vietnam–her pupils (all of whom are older than she is) are more interested in their union contracts and how they can deal with problematic students.

Beth herself is an example of the difficulty of relating to history. While officially a lawyer, she’s in student debt and from a humble single-parent background (her pre-academic prospects included selling shoes). She teaches this night class hours away from her home and day-job at a Livingston firm, struggling to get sufficient sleep. As she hungrily nibbles on post-class cheese sandwiches and ice cream, Stewart’s performance highlights the dizzying exhaustion of trying to hold onto oneself and a longview perspective while hurdled through responsibilities, again building a boat with little hope of sailing somewhere.

The drive to build and live in a room of one’s own, reconciling the present’s expenditure with the past’s totality, is best exhibited by Gina’s story. She’s building a house and wants to use pioneer sandstone for a sense of regional authenticity. Reichardt has a lot of ambivalence in her scene with Albert, Ryan acting as a chief (and ineffectual, even undermining to her) negotiator. Albert’s had this stone since he moved here in the 1960s. That stone was used to build the town’s original church and schoolhouse (which are now extinct). Albert built his own homestead and planned on using the remaining stone for an adjoining porch. Now in his mid 70s he shrugs, “Probably not going to do that now.” The ridiculous Hegelian project of history goes unfinished, the “dialectic” here offbeat as Albert might as well be talking to himself (he barely looks at Gina), as meanwhile the removed sound of nature is steady (“How are you? How are you?” “I’m fine, thanks!”) Why should there be any discussion of ownership to the native stone that outlasts everyone who touches it?

The quail’s question-answers are permanent, like the sound of flowing water running alongside Gina as she relaxes in solitude following a morning run (the film’s sound design is subtle, exacting, tremendous), or the coyotes keeping her up at night. On nature’s foundation, people aspire to acquire the mirages in the mind’s eye. And while nature’s communication is opaque, there’s a firmament to it missing from what the film shows elsewhere between lovers, employers and employees, and institutions and citizens.

Can clarion human dialogical exchange occur? As Certain Women‘s third part begins, the rancher Jamie catches the beginning of a science fiction scenario on television about exploring uncharted frontiers. Here, the film’s gazing motif reaches its apex, as Jamie’s eyes lead her on a frontier adventure of the heart. A discrete “courtship” of Beth fulminates with a late night horseback ride, something of a novelty gift from Jamie to Beth, and perhaps the fullest picture of human closeness in a Reichardt picture that generates an illusion between human desire and nature, the lens flares accentuating the fullness of vision, the worshipful eye holding and suspending a moment out of time. It is still an illusion, however, even in gorgeous 16mm. When Jamie realizes that Beth has unexpectedly quit teaching (brought to attention by her replacement, a local man who can’t seem to wait unloading his recent personal baggage to the class about his divorce), she drives into the night over black iced isolated roads to find her. In Livingston, her eyes search through windows of cozy sanctuaries from the winter, where everyone seems to have an equal partner completing them.

The next morning, she finds Beth at her law firm, and there’s a brief, awkward exchange of glances with few words. What Jamie musters through her adoring gaze is ostensibly simple but really devastating in the context of a motion picture of so many open, unforgiving landscapes: “I was just afraid I’d never see you again.” But Beth is not one of Jamie’s animals who, still unfed at this morning hour, are now “wondering where I’m at.” And that’s that. The schism met between an optical vector reverberates with a tangibility absent, for example, in Ryan’s telephoned break-up with Laura (“I was expecting your voice-mail.” “Nope, sorry, you got me…So what were you going to tell my voicemail?”)  The arresting illusion sidelined quotidian duties, spiraling the seeker off-course to an irresistible ruin. Jamie mutely drives away from Livingston, the film’s first non-diegetic music fading in, the sadness of the grey horizon fulminating through the windshield. The camera stays fixed on her as she turns corners, the film strangely evoking another story of a fixated seer, Jimmy Stewart, in pursuit of Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

If Wendy and Lucy‘s lost-dog neorealist antecedent is Umberto D., perhaps Certain Women‘s is Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), an episodic devotional of “certain men” looking at nature and praying through the camera for peace and understanding (my own influence of projection is so biased that I swear Certain Women‘s opening sound, a rhythmic ringing, is lifted from the moment in St. Francis when a friar cleans the Call to Prayer bells of the monastery crucifix). Rossellini’s film is about the uncertain goodness of one’s actions–am I helping or hurting? Am I helping by hurting, or hurting by helping? What use is kindness if it’s not reciprocated or appreciated? The enormity of landscape serves a similarly humbling purpose (like Certain Women‘s opening train, St. Francis begins with a long shot on a path as a slow procession of friars moves forward), where an earnest dialogue uninterrupted by the foibles of thought and malfeasance is exhibited in nature. Francis tries to recite the Lord’s Prayer but is interrupted by mellifluous birds. “My little brothers,” he says to them, “you can praise God so easily because you’re free to fly through the air so pure.” Illusions cast aside, life is uncertain but there’s still a semblance of grace in the ageless and constant, a prehistorical innocence shimmering from the eyes of animals, like that of the corgi at Jamie’s heels, adoringly devoted to its caretaker keeping the water dish full. “For Lucy.” Certain Women is Kelly Reichardt’s masterful love letter for the departed, having the obfuscations of earthbound dialogue subservient to the muted comprehension exchanged within perfect glances between ourselves and animals.

Originally posted in L'Etoile Magazine, November 23, 2016