Certain Women (2016)
The first minute is R and then, like, nothing else is R. The first moment has Laura Dern in a bra, but that bra is unnecessarily see-thru. What was the choice that happened here? Like, I don't even remember the language being that pervasive. Perhaps Kelly Reichardt shares my beliefs that all good movies are R-Rated.
DIRECTOR: Kelly Reichardt
I have very little time to write this. I'm about to go into Parent / Teacher conferences and that is when my world collapses. But I try to get a review done a day and that doesn't always happen. The odd thing is that I kind of want to write about this one. I went into Certain Women completely ignorant about its content. I was being a Criterion snob, so when I saw a Criterion on the New Release shelf at the library, I just picked it up. I was expecting something else, but I was pleasantly surprised about this movie.
I guess this is another one of those, "Explain the basic premise" movies. Kelly Reichardt adapted three short stories by Maile Meloy, which are all about women in Montana. Reichardt loosely ties some of the stories together, but for all intents and purposes, this is an anthology film. I like anthology films. I don't know why. Perhaps it is the TV part of my brain that can concentrate on smaller stories. Normally I associate anthologies with horror or themes, but I suppose the theme in this movie is the characterization of women set against the bleak background of Montana. The thing that makes this movie what it is can be attributed to the strong characterization versus a dense plot. Like many works that can be analyzed with a feminist perspective, the narrative takes a backseat and that really works. This isn't necessarily about being linear, but more about the internal struggle of these characters. Reichardt created stories about four women who have so much to say, but no cultural context to actually say it. That's super interesting. I'm writing like I'm woke right now, but I always feel like a poseur when it comes to this stuff. I love how much is going on behind the eyes in this movie. I think regardless of feminism, I do find the story remarkably engaging. It doesn't need the traditional elements of plot to go ahead. I can't say that I've always been this open-minded when it comes to storytelling, but it does seem to really work here. (This makes me a bad person, but I can't wrap my head around Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. Yes, they're tough, but I'm also an English teacher. I should be better than that.) Rather, the character study is awesome in such small doses. Perhaps that was always my problem with the literary masters. I like peeks into the psychology, but I don't like to be entrenched in it. These short stories are emotional set pieces for me. I can enter this world, stay long enough to understand a perspective that I may not have experienced and then get out. Because the core of these stories are emotional, that feeling sticks with me. There's nothing temporary about those feelings. While writing this a day later, I'm still very attached to these women (for the most part.)
The most interesting and, I'm ashamed to say this, appealing to dudes is the Laura Dern sequence. And, no, it's not because of creepy bra stuff. Stop being gross, The Internet! Her story has the most structured narrative of the three stories and actually has a mild amount of action and humor. I don't want to credit the first story's awesomeness to the the fact that it has a pretty heavy dude element in it, portrayed phenomenally by Jared Harris. But Laura Dern's simultaneous frustration and empathy for Jared Harris's Fuller is fascinating. It explores what it means to be a woman in a male dominated profession without being full on preachy about the whole thing. As a lawyer, she wants the best for her client, who is genuinely sympathetic. But he's also laying down this huge burden at someone else's feet. He refuses to acknowledge evidence in front of him and feels like he can passive-aggressively bully his lawyer. I don't think I've ever felt that real world feeling of both disdain and sympathy at the same time. That's what reality is like. People with genuinely pitiful situations sometimes don't pick up on social cues and there is the need to be a good person. The story gets a little larger than life in one part of the story and that part might not right the most true, especially compared to the other sequences in the story. But also, that character kind of needed a way not to fade away. It makes his dialogue choices earlier in the sequence all the more potent. Dern's command over her situation is also fantastic. She makes a very cool choice at the end of this sequence that shows how Dern is both strong and caring simultaneously. She never is manipulated, but she can sometimes just acknowledge that a situation just sucks.
I read the packet that came with the Criterion DVD. (Thanks, The Library.) I also perused the Wikipedia page (looking for something else that I'll definitely get to later on) and saw that this project only came together because of Michelle Williams's involvement. I normally really like Michelle Williams. I don't dislike her here, by any means, but I also think that her performance might be the roughest in the movie. Part of what makes this movie work is that the performers can't really wear their emotions on their sleeves. They have to internalize everything. We have to feel what they feel, despite the fact that they are not expressing it. I don't envy any of the performers their tasks, but I have to especially forgive Michelle Williams's character because her job might have been the hardest. Her character is often seen as selfish and uncaring, but there is more to that moment than just Williams's need. I don't know if she is entirely successful in portraying what is going on in that sequence. The only reason I really understood the depth of her moments is that I read up on it afterwards. That's not necessarily a good sign. In my marriage, there are times where I get frustrated with my wife over stupid things. She often gets annoyed with me over my mannerisms and that's just the way that life is. Her husband, in this sequence, does some stuff that would genuinely annoy me. But her natural reaction is to fight about it or stew about it. That doesn't help her case. I get it. She's at a point in her marriage that illustrates how exhausted she is. Perhaps, when she was younger, she talked out her feelings like one should. But we never get to see that. I think that was probably a choice, but it also left me wildly unsympathetic. Yes, the husband did jerk things. His choice of beard had much to be desired. But her disdain for him was palpable. It was uncomfortable. I get that there is history that I'm not seeing, but it made her remarkably unsympathetic. And the fact that I see her as unsympathetic makes me part of the patriarchy who just wants ladies to smile. I don't want to be that, guys. I want to be part of the woke elite...or something like that. But her relationship with Rene Auberjonis was so heartbreaking. Again, stressing on what is behind the eyes is the important part of this film. She knows that she's injuring this man, yet she clearly has love or pity for him. She justifies her actions. While her excuse is kind of valid, it still feels like an excuse. She even knows this. This is where Michelle Williams shines. It's just that her interaction with her family seems to be lacking, but according to The Awakening, she's doing the right thing.
This is where I have no idea what happened. I told you I was coming back to this. I have to make a big confession: I'm terrible at reading relationships as simple friendships or as homosexual relationships. I really suck at it, guys. I'm the worst. Movies that I thought of as devoid of any sexuality as a kid, I now watch with sheer awe wondering what kind of stuff I missed. It's laughable how I can't read a room sometimes. The third segment, starring Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone, blew my mind. It's two different movies to me. Is this a movie about someone who is an outcast because of her weird social abnormalities who just wants an educated friend or is this a movie about a lesbian who falls in love with a teacher and has no idea how to express that? Can it be both? I don't know. I feel like Reichardt wants me to Schrodinger's Cat this entire story. Why does it matter? Because it is a very different story and both are fairly interesting. I want to believe that Reichardt wants us to make a decision about which way to take the narrative because that's cool and artistic. There is something really intentionally elusive about the whole thing. Perhaps that's what we are supposed to be feeling. I might have to make a choice about what Kristen Stewart is feeling. That is probably a very real emotion in itself. Is this a friendship? Is this something more? Lily Gladstone, and I'm trying to say this as sensitively as I can, has masculine traits. That dynamic has existed before between couples. On top of that, I had to ask if Kristen Stewart was avoiding Lily Gladstone. (Or was "Elizabeth" avoiding "The Rancher"...because she doesn't have a name in the movie.) It's a very cool story and it is really the only kind of story that Kristen Stewart can pull off. I went off on a rant about Stewart in the last movie I saw her in, saying that she's got one level. Luckily, this story is about Stewart portraying one level. Like I mentioned, it's behind the eyes. Part of what also works is that I don't view Elizabeth as the protagonist of that segment. I see Gladstone as the protagonist. The mystery of Stewart's feelings is almost necessary for us to empathize with Gladstone's Rancher character. And watching it with multiple interpretations gives us a whole wealth of awkwardness to dissect. Regardless of how the relationship is viewed, Gladstone's vulnerability and awkwardness encourages the audience to look away at times. I love it so much.
I really dug this movie. I am not sure if I'm doing it justice or if I'm just hitting the right level of interpretation. Regardless, I totally dig this movie, even if I have a hard time identifying the nature of friendships.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.