Invitation and Refusal: Empathic Form in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt’s 2016 film Certain Women signals a radical expansion from her earlier output both in terms of setting and scope: not since River of Grass in 1994 had Reichardt filmed a story outside of Oregon–Certain Women travels northeast to Montana and makes expert use of the state’s varied terrain to illustrate the individual lives of three women. As with the majority of her films, Reichardt served as both editor and director on this one–her signature slow style dominates the film, though an emphasis on character over situation results in a markedly different effect than in works such as Meek’s Cutoff or Night Moves.

Certain Women offers viewers several Reichardt trademark touches–opening landscape shots, a near-absence of non-diegetic sound, and a general tendency toward realism over melodrama. Writing on Reichardt’s work, film scholars Katherine Fusco and Nicole Seymour identified a focus on themes such as precarity, empathy, and outsider alienation. Certain Women retains this signature focus but expands its lens: by moving from character to character before establishing a resolution, the film refuses easy interpretation and invites viewers to test the limits of our empathy for occasionally indecipherable characters.

Form accomplishes much of this push and pull. In many of the scenes taking place inside vehicles, the camera’s lateral position allows the passing landscape to remain visible outside the car windows as characters converse. An enlarged frame can sometime lend to dramatic irony, where we as viewers see more than characters and therefore have additional insight to their situation. In other Reichardt films, form and theme function in this way, making audiences privy to a problem long before characters are granted this awareness. The car shots in Certain Women do just the opposite. Instead of providing viewers an omniscient viewpoint, the choice to shoot from within the vehicle while still keeping an eye on landscape inhibits scope while encouraging empathy for characters and their surroundings, putting us near-literally in place of the characters.

In one particularly memorable scene, we find Laura (played by Laura Dern), a workers’ comp attorney, discussing case details with her client, Fuller. Fuller strongly believes he’s been wronged by his employers, and the film’s form occasionally sides with him–we get subjective shots from his blurred POV early on as he reads a Post-It note memo. During this car ride, however, the camera shifts naturally from person to person, providing viewers with a more balanced sense of the frustration in both characters. As the scene ends, we witness the car driving off into the distance, the shot grounding us again in environment.

In Reichardt’s earlier output, the narrative might treat Laura as a smaller speck in Fuller’s periphery–he’s certainly the character who most clearly demonstrates distress. Instead of following his trajectory, however, the film downplays it: when Fuller decides to enter his place of employment and take a security guard hostage at gunpoint, the camera follows a matter-of-fact Laura as she diffuses the situation in a series of movements that are best described as anticlimactic.

The second thread contained in Certain Women proves even harder to unpack–in contrast to other Reichardt characters, Gina is, well, rich. She and her husband are in the middle of building their new home from the ground up–we meet her as she finishes a morning jog through the woods. Despite being the wealthiest of the three primary characters, Gina (portrayed by Reichardt regular Michelle Williams) appears to be the most down and out. She moves across the frame like a ghost–drifting in and out of focus and engagement with other characters. More than once, the Montana landscape reflects back on Gina’s face, adding an element of translucence to an otherwise opaque character.

One extended scene involves Gina and her husband asking an old friend for the sandstone on his property. Nothing too dramatic is said during this exchange (the conversation consists mainly of small talk involving groceries and events about town), but there’s a near-tangible pressure in the conversation that calls our attention to the troubled dynamic between husband and wife. Gina wants to belong, but something–possibly her husband’s affair with Laura, revealed earlier in the film–frustrates this want.

Instead of showing us an impoverished or economically threatened character, Reichardt presents us with her opposite. Gina camps in luxury with her husband and daughter, but the camera isolates her from her family even in this enclosed space. In this way, Certain Women stresses the importance of empathy for imperfect characters–we understand many factors affect a human life, and that countless everyday emergencies impede connection.

The third segment of Certain Women might have easily been a misfit romance in the vein of River of Grass, but instead we get a meditation on the effect of economic instability on human relationships. Rancher Jamie (a truly transfixing Lily Gladstone) lives alone and cares for her horses. Wandering into town one night, she sees a cavalcade of vehicles pulling into the local school and decides to sit in on an education law class, taking a desk near the back of the room. Here she meets Beth, a young part-time teacher who travels four hours back and forth to class twice a week. Jamie and Beth seem to hit it off, eating together at a local diner after class gets out. When Beth suddenly stops coming to class, Jamie drives the distance- seemingly just to say goodbye. Beth can’t quite understand her gesture- as she walks away, we’re caught off guard by our surprise at how events played out. If Reichardt stifles a potential romance in this scene, it’s less the stamping out of a flame than it is the slow removal of oxygen from its surroundings.

The film never fully loses faith, however: though momentarily stung by Beth’s behavior, Jamie remains indefatigable in the face of hardship. As viewers, we get the sense she has to. In Jamie’s world, human connections don’t simply create themselves–they require work, commitment, and the courage to continuously put one’s heart on the line. In such an unforgiving environment, it falls on people to be kind.

Fusco and Seymour write of the indifferent lens in Reichardt films–that by maintaining focus on landscape and setting long after a character exits a frame, her visuals illustrate the uncaring harshness of nature and environment. Certain Women turns this effect on its head, using the same basic technique to encourage viewers to recognize the impact of environment on each woman and her circumstances.

The empathic lens of Certain Women lingers on women at their most vulnerable, but also their most ordinary. We get Laura in pajamas and socks before bed, Gina quietly taking in the room around her, and Jamie staring at her reflection while brushing her teeth. We meet characters in the middle of conflict, though they might not know it. Life, after all, isn’t framed in terms of beginnings and endings–there’s only the day to day. In focusing so intently on the details of everyday life and downplaying events such as Fuller’s hostage situation, Certain Women awards equal significance to both the big and the small, urging viewers to reexamine quiet moments for meaning.

Conflicts take all forms; we feel not just for those in obvious need or distress, but, reaching even deeper into our reservoirs, extend our empathy even to difficult women. The empathic form of Certain Women is quiet, but radical: what makes a female character likable or unlikeable in a critic’s eye too often depends on how easy she is to grasp. Reichardt puts viewers in close proximity with her characters yet refuses us total access to their inner workings. We can stare deep into their reflections for as long as they do, but will we ever know these women? More importantly, do we really need to?

 

By Juliette Faraone

Juliette hails from an Indiana town with about 1500 inhabitants, most of whom are her cousins. She has a BA in comparative lit and is currently working toward her MA in cinema studies at SCAD. Juliette likes Diet Coke, sweatshirts, and Joan of Arc narratives.

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