PARK CITY, UTAH: A few years back, writer Dan Kois used Kelly Reichardt’s then-recent neo-Western Meek’s Cutoff as the centerpiece of a New York Times discussion of the pros and cons of eating one’s “cultural vegetables”; it was the prime example of a “slow-moving, meditative drama” during which the author “had trouble staying planted in my seat with my attention focused on the screen.” Reichardt’s latest film, Certain Women (which premiered Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival), won’t do much to change the minds of Mr. Kois and his fidgety brethren. It’s a movie so patiently paced, even a high-octane shotgun-and-hostage situation is treated quietly and deliberately. There are no verbose emotional arias or chest-beating screaming matches. It’s a collection of the tiniest moments, which accumulate into a kind of devastation.
Reichardt tells three stories, all adapted (some rather loosely) from the short fiction of Maile Meloy. “As soon as I stumbled onto one short story collection, I went right on to the next, and knew right away that I wanted to make a film of her stories,” Reichardt said in the Q&A following Sunday’s premiere. “They were right up my alley: landscapes, people on landscapes, a lotta chores, all of my favorite things.”
The film’s three segments are, at first glance, only superficially connected, by minor characters or momentary locations. But Reichardt was drawn to what they had in common thematically: “I just thought there were these really subtle threads of struggle.” She first tells the story of a small-town lawyer and her difficulties with a stubborn client; he has to go to a (male) lawyer for a second opinion, and she shrugs, “Being a man, people would listen; it would be so restful.” The second story finds a family grinding on each other’s nerves at the end of a weekend camping trip. In the third, a bored rancher wanders into the classroom of a pretty young lawyer, and finds herself attracted to her – or maybe she just welcomes a ripple to break the monotony.
As a form of fiction, short stories are built less for sprawling narratives than brief snapshots – drilling down on moments, rather than collecting them. The stories Reichardt tells here fit snugly into that mold, so she lets us fill in the backstories and puzzle out the dynamics. What’s important isn’t what’s led to the fissures between, say, the second story’s husband and wife, but the loaded interactions, tiny yet intense and exhausting, that now define their relationship. Even the heartbreak of the final story doesn’t manifest itself in a sobbing breakdown or a wet-eyed confession; Reichardt merely holds on the face of her rancher, as she watches this woman drive away from one of their post-class diner chats, and knows that face tells the whole story.
Certain Women finds Reichardt working with her most impressive cast to date; in addition to regular collaborator Michelle Williams (who fronted Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy), her ensemble includes Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, and Jared Harris. Pal James Le Gros, who also acted in her last film, Night Moves, explained how she attracts such performers: “To a working actor, you get hired out and do these jobs, and it’s mostly like bookcases and bathrooms and you try to make the best of it. And every now and again you get the ceiling of a church, and you get to do something outside of your expectations, and that’s the best thing.”
The big new draw is Stewart, who immediately proclaimed, “I’m a Reichardt fan” and praised the filmmaker’s refusal to “package up and deliver you this notion. It doesn’t happen. Her movies, because they’re so composed — they’re not found, they’re not messy, you don’t just, like, get it up on someone’s shoulder and be like, ‘We get whatever we get’ — it’s super thoughtful in its approach, and slow, and steady, and the fact that she has the patience and the interest in things that people don’t normally look at is what paces her movies. That and the comfortability of watching nothing — because there’s always something in there.”
There’s a moment, late in the movie, when one character pleads for another to send letters, over her objection that there’s nothing to say. It doesn’t matter, he tells her. “It doesn’t have to be a tome,” he insists. For much of Certain Women, this seems to be Reichardt’s operating principle. It’s only when it’s all over that you realize what the filmmaker was really up to –- that emotionally and empathetically, it’s thousands of pages thick.
Certain Women screens this week at the Sundance Film Festival.