Wednesday, July 15, 2020

In Laman's Terms: Kelly Reichardt and Her Comforting Lack of Answers

Jamie (Lily Gladstone) from Certain Women
In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

At the end of Kelly Reichardt's 2016 movie Certain Women, Jamie (Lily Gladstone) embarks on a quest. She's recently spent her nights chatting away with attorney Beth (Kristen Stewart) at the local diner. Now, Beth has suddenly returned to her distant hometown. Yearning to see her again. Jamie decides to head down to Beth's town. After hours of driving and a whole night of searching the town, Jamie finally stumbles down on Beth. It's the reunion Jamie has been dreaming about for so long now. Unfortunately, the reunited Jamie and Beth don't exactly have an exchange straight out of one's dreams.

Beth and Jamie share a few awkward phrases as Beth, whose heading into work, worries about making sure she isn't late. All of Jamie's efforts to have one last meaningful conversation with Beth have resulted in this. A quick bit of discomfort before each of them return to their individual lives. Jamie and Beth quickly part ways, with the camera following Jamie as she's driving out of the town. Rather than going directly home, though, Jamie makes a quick detour for herself. On her way back, she drives off the road and into a nearby field. There, she parks the car and stops.

We don't see what she's doing inside the automobile. All we know is that Jamie, after nearly a whole of determined movement to see Beth again, has put her life on pause.

In a traditional movie, maybe Beth would have somehow joined Jamie in that meadow. Maybe Beth would have revealed that she's secretly enamored with Jamie too. Maybe there would have been a happy ending to this storyline in a traditional movie. But the works of Kelly Reichardt don't adhere to such tidy conclusions. Though her films span differing decades, aesthetics and genres, across all of them is a common style of ending. Characters in Reichardt movies don't finish their stories in either total misery or total victory. Instead, these features conclude on a note of uncertainty. Reichardt characters like Jamie tend to end their adventures more unsure of their future than they did at the beginning.

This trait is featured all throughout the conclusions to the assortment of subplots of Certain Women. This is particularly true of a plotline involving injured worker Will Fuller (Jared Harris). Now incarcerated after he committed a hostage situation at his work, Fuller's life is now nothing but uncertainty. His wife is gone. The aftereffects of his workplace injury (including impaired vision) are still here. Who knows what kind of employment he'll get once he gets out. In the middle of all this uncertainty, Fuller finds some comfort in one thing: letters. Inside his jail cell, isolated from the outside world, correspondence from anybody makes his life a bit easier to bear. "You could talk about anything," Fuller says to his lawyer Laura (Laura Dern), "Talk about the weather. Talk about your day. Just so you put it in an envelope and... put it in the mail. Doesn't have to be a tome."

Letters are the rock of consistency that Fuller clings onto in a sea of unpredictability. What a bittersweet note to end Fuller's story on.

Of course, Certain Women isn't the only Reichardt film to end on a note of uncertainty. In fact, her second feature film, Old Joy, also concludes on this note. Old Joy concerns two longtime best friends, Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London), who go on a retreat to a sauna in the forest. Both are headed in different directions in life. Kurt is still living as an aimless hippie while Mark is in a relationship and preparing for his first child. At the end of Old Joy, Kurt and Mark part ways. Mark returns to his home and Kurt? Well, spending a few days with his longtime friend hasn't given Kurt a revelation that helps him to turn his life around. Instead, the final shots of Kurt in Old Joy see him wandering down the sidewalk, returning to his old life once again.

There's no dialogue in this sequence, but we don't need any to understand what kind of future Kurt is heading back to. While it's a life that's familiar and comforting to Kurt, it's also one that doesn't offer easy answers as to where he'll end up in the long-term. Can he avoid the pressures and responsibilities of reality forever? Old Joy smartly refuses to answer that question. Instead, it ends its story on a final Kurt-centric oozing with uncertainty.

While many of Reichardt's works conclude on that tone of uncertainty, none of them are quite as devastating as Wendy & Lucy's heartbreaking wrap-up. In its final moments, homeless woman Wendy (Michelle Williams) finally encounters her dog Lucy again. This joyous reunion quickly turns to quiet tragedy as Wendy realizes Lucy, who is now in somebody's backyard, has found a much more stable home. Holding back tears, Wendy imparts a farewell to her loyal companion before hopping a train out of the town. Wendy & Lucy ends with Wendy riding in a boxcar alone, heading off to a future unknown save for the certainty that Lucy will not be a part of it.

The ending of Wendy & Lucy is guaranteed to put any person with a functioning heart in a state of melancholy. It's the best example of Reichardt's gift for wringing such powerful emotions out of understated movies. Part of why these endings work as well as they do is because of how well Reichardt grounds these characters in reality. The individual personalities and desires of characters like Jamie, Fuller, Kurt, and Wendy are so recognizably human. We can see ourselves, as the viewer, in their struggles. Who hasn't connected with a person they would drive hours to see? Who hasn't found comfort in unexpected forms of routine? Who hasn't resisted the idea of growing up?

Reichardt is absolutely brilliant at capturing these universal human experiences and bottling them up in engaging characters. That sense of discernible realism in Reichardt's characters makes their most tragic experiences so hard to watch. We know that, say, Wendy losing Lucy isn't something she'll magically get over by the time the credits of Wendy & Lucy begin to roll. Like in real life, the loss of such a dear friend like Lucy will haunt Wendy for years to come. Even when the film's end, it's easy to imagine Reichardt's characters reeling with the ripple effects of their woes for years to come.

This quality of authenticity helps to create devastatingly uncertain endings for Reichardt's films. In the specific case of Certain Women, though, I found a paradoxically comforting quality in Reichardt's various uncertain conclusions. Perhaps it's because Certain Women, unlike Reichardt's other works, offers up an epilogue for each of its characters. Jamie, for example, is briefly seen working at the ranch still in the wake of her failed reunion with Beth. She's not happy. The past is not something she's been able to toss aside. But she is surviving. She's living with the disappointment and the uncertainty of her future. Much like the ending of Old Joy, the epilogue of Certain Women is a dialogue-free sequence that says so much about a character's future.

The endings of Certain Women still leave you with an emotional gut-punch. Yet, the fact that they show people shouldering on in the wake of tragedy proves reassuring. These endings normalize the idea that it's OK to not have the answers. Even if you feel like you're going to die from all the sadness, you can endure. It won't be easy, it won't be perfect. But you can survive. That's a message that would prove important in any context. But Certain Women's notion of persevering in the face of an unknown future feels especially relevant during America's ongoing grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Americans and citizens of other countries, the end of this COVID-19 pandemic still isn't in sight. The age of social distancing and self-quarantine marches on, as do the feelings of isolation that comes with those practices. In such an era, any piece of art that reminds us all that we aren't alone is worth treasuring. That includes pieces of art that refuse to offer up tidy hopeful endings like the works of Kelly Reichardt. Across her filmography, melancholy conclusions prove oddly comforting. These endings let viewers know they're not alone in not having all the answers. Even when we feel alone, Reichardt's movies remind us that we're all navigating a sea of uncertainty just like Jamie from Certain Women.

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