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The common denominator is the landscape: Montana. Open country, clear, fresh air. The expanse of space could mean the freedom to roam. As we look into the four female characters, however, the vastness of the landscape and the cold winter could infer separateness and the need for connections. In the internal landscape, an assertion of self.

Director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, 2008) has chosen three short stories by Maile Meloy to form a cinematic triptych. Meloy’s stories are lean and succinct. Correspondingly, Reichardt’s style is minimal as with her previous works. She brings together three loosely linked stories that can stand on their own. To review them in a succinct way, I’ll use three words as my focal point for each.

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Authority

Laura (Laura Dern), a woman lawyer in Livingston has to deal with a disgruntled client, Fuller (Jared Harris), who was injured in his construction job. As he has accepted a settlement, he can have no further claim for tort. Laura has explained this to him time and again, but he refuses to believe her until one day, they drive a few hours to another town to seek a second opinion from a personal injury lawyer, a male. As Fuller listens to the lawyer stating the same reason as Laura has been telling him all along, he just says ‘Okay’ and seems to accept the fact. Laura laments: “If I were a man, I could explain the law and people would listen and say ‘Okay.’ It’ll be so restful.”

A few days later, a hostage-taking incident occurs in the middle of the night, and Laura is called by the police. It’s Fuller taking a security guard hostage at a government office and wants her to go in to read him his file regarding compensation. Laura goes in and calmly diffuses the tense situation. The incident sends Fuller to prison. He seems content when Laura visits him. Laura finds a changed and much calmer Fuller. He appreciates her visit, and just wants an occasional letter from her to keep in touch. Laura does have authority after all, albeit may not be as she has hoped in the professional front. Her influence rests on her considerate demeanor making an impact on a personal and human level. And for this, Fuller learns to appreciate.

Authenticity

A city woman Gina (Michelle Williams) wants to build a country dream house, not to move in but as a weekend home. She has her eyes on a pile of sandstones that belong to long time resident of the land, Albert (Rene Auberjonois). The sandstones hold the history of the area, for they are from the original school house. We see the cracks in Gina’s relationship with her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) as they try to smooth-talk Albert, Gina seemingly caring but assertive in what she wants, while Ryan is apologetic and conciliatory. Why would a city woman want a pile of old sandstones for her country home? For authenticity, Ryan tells Albert. Ouch, is that supposed to be helpful or is he being sarcastic? Further, their daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier) seems to be harder to placate as she is dragged along to the country reluctantly. The crevice in the mother-daughter relationship looks to be a tough fissure to fix.

Alienation

The most moving segment comes last. A young lawyer Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) has to drive a few hours several nights a week after work from Livingston to Belfry to teach a night course on school law, a prior commitment before she found her present job. At the night class, she encounters a ranch hand, Jamie (Lily Gladstone), who drops in out of curiosity. The short moments of sharing as she accompanies Beth to a diner after class for a meal before she drives back home stir up deep longings. Gladstone’s restraint is particularly moving. Nuanced performance from both.

While she may be adroit with horses, it’s a human connection that Jamie yearns for. She comes to every class until one night, the students are told that the class will be taught by another teacher as Beth has quit due to the long drive. Eager to look for her, the ranch hand drives to Livingston to search for a lawyer named Beth Travis. What follows is an aching attempt to reach out towards an unrequited end. The last scene of the same horse-tending routines Jamie gets back to speaks poignantly. Life goes on despite…

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Source materials: Short stories by Maile Meloy “Tome” and “Native Sandstone” from the collection Half In Love, and “Travis, B.” from Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it.