Thursday, July 9, 2020

Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women Masterfully Uses Silence To Convey Internal Woe

All of director Kelly Reichardt's movies have made great use of silence. The extended trip to an outdoor sauna in Old Joy immediately leaps to my mind as a great example of this. Ditto the quiet endings of Meek's Cutoff and Leaves of Grass that eschew dialogue to allow the audience to fully absorb the entire movie. In her 2016 feature film Certain Women, a hushed quality washes over the proceedings even when characters are trading lines of dialogue. Everyone in this movie is plagued by some kind of woe that they've lived with for so long that they deal with it in subdued terms. Even a situation where a man holds another man hostage at gunpoint doesn't feature so much as somebody raising their voices.

For the character Certain Women, what's the point of yelling? Doing that in the face of their anguish would be like throwing a pebble at a tank. Writer/director Kelly Reichardt communicates this idea in a haunting fashion throughout the trio of stories that Certain Women explores. A hundred torture porn movies with all their grisly mutilations wish they had the harrowing quality of Reichardt's filmmaking in Certain Women.

Certain Women's top-notch use of silence is made clear right away as the opening credits play over a  scene of a train slowly rolling by the grassy landscape surrounding a small Montana town. Even without dialogue or even human characters, Certain Women is able to use the coloring, vast empty space, and minimal presence of sounds in this scene to establish quiet sense of melancholy that permeates the rest of the movie.

 After that opening, we dive right into the first of Certain Women's three stories, which concerns lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern). She's spent the last eight months trying to break the news to her client, injured worker Fuller (Jared Harris), that there's nothing she can do for him. There's just no way they can create a lawsuit against his former employer. After getting the same bad news from another lawyer, Fuller proceeds to hold a nightguard at his former job hostage. Wells gets called in by the local police to do what she can to calm down the situation.

Next up we have Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams), who, alongside her husband and teenage daughter, is embarking on the task of building her own home. As part of this endeavor, Lewis tries to coerce an elderly man named Albert to let Gina buy the sandstone that's in his front yard. Gina knows the sand sandstone would be the perfect material to use to build her home. Finally, we follow rancher Jamie (Gina Gladstone), who begins attending night classes at a local High School just so she can spend time with the instructor, Beth Ravis (Kristen Stewart). The two begin to spend nights after the classes talking at the diner, quietly bonding in the process.

Save for a cameo from Laura towards the end of Jamie's story, the individual tales in Certain Women don't intersect much. They're not meant to be happening in the same location or anything like that, each of these characters seems to be occupying their own world. However, across these individual plots, screenwriter Kelly Reichardt (whose based Certain Women on stories told by Maile Meloy) does establish a number of consistent elements in the filmmaking and tone. In the former category, Reichardt opts for extended wide shots that go on for prolonged periods of time. If it's possible to capture conversations between two people in the span of a single shot, Reichardt will go for that. She's not taking any chances on a jarring cut that could potentially upend the rhythm of an exchange.

While it's an obvious point of comparison, certain uses of prolonged wide shots for Jamie's storyline did evoke similar visuals in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman. Specifically, extended single-takes depicting Jamie going through day-to-day drudgery in her ranch job totally evoked how Akerman would use extended single-takes in Jeanne Dielman to accentuate the aching pain of Dielman. In both films, the choice to frame a characters mundane actions in drawn-out shots allows us to understand what kind of monotony they go through on a daily basis (though the films themselves avoid becoming tedious).

No wonder Jamie becomes so infatuated with Beth Ravis. Reichardt's filmmaking has made it abundantly clear that Jamie's life is defined by a familiar routine. A new person with a unique personality proves understandable captivating for Jamie. Impressively, Reichardt is able to translate her specific style of filmmaking for Certain Women to accomplish different moods throughout the individual stories. In Gina's segment, for example, Reichardt uses prolonged single-takes to accentuate the awkwardness in a conversation between Gina, her husband and Albert. In Laura's story, meanwhile, Reichard's directorial approach is used to convey a sense of bleak dread.

Though Reichardt's filmmaking is consistent all throughout Certain Women, it's used for such varied means throughout the individual storylines that it never becomes repetitive. Of course, Certain Women's compelling nature doesn't just derive from Reichard's camerawork. It's also aided by her screenwriting, which lends an empathetic lens to the assorted figures chronicled in Certain Women. This is especially true of anything dealing with the character of Jamie. Despite being a grounded subdued drama, Certain Women still finds time to let Jamie indulge in romantic victories, such as an incredibly sweet scene where Jamie takes Beth Ravis to the local diner on horseback.

Of course, that touching sequence just makes a subsequent awkward reunion between Jamie and Beth all the more powerful. After that vexatious encounter, we follow Beth as she begins the long drive back home. Here we again see Reichardt masterfully employing silence as Beth doesn't utter a word yet we feel the avalanche of disappointment and sorrow rolling over her being. It's also a great showcase for the talents of Lily Gladstone, who turns out to be Certain Women's acting MVP. We all know Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, and Michelle Williams can turn in excellent performances. Gladstone, in only her fourth film role, holds her own against such esteemed performances both in this final gut-wrenching sequence as well as throughout her entire storyline in Certain Women.

Gladstone's performance and Reichardt's direction are the two best examples of how Certain Women uses silence to create a haunting atmosphere I can't get out of my head. Such an atmosphere is informed by the pervasive sense of loneliness that marks the characters of Certain Women. From Fuller (whose third act scene where he talks about how you appreciate letters in prison just broke my heart) to Gina (who feels detached from her family members) to poor disappointed Jamie, Certain Women is defined by internal anguish. It's an element of these Certain Women characters portrayed quietly yet still resonates as something extremely potent. That's what happens when writer/director Kelly Reichardt messes around with silence!

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