But you already know that if you have seen Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cut-Off. If you are a newcomer to her highly personal and (some might say) idiosyncratic art Certain Women may not be the best introduction. See the two films above first and then see Certain Women and you should feel right at home.
You may have read about the slow food movement. Well, Reichardt’s films are what has been called “slow cinema”. And she determines the pace. (She has edited, written and directed all of the films listed above.)
Based on a series of short stories by Montana author Maile Meloy (sister of Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, by the way) Certain Women offers low key character studies of four women (Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern and Lily Gladstone), their humdrum existences, frustrations and small victories.
Reichardt’s films, like the slow food movement perhaps, are an acquired taste. The film recived a 92% per cent critical approval on the rottentomatoes.com site but fared less successfully among the audience reviewers (RT Audience Critic Phillip Price wrote in part “… There is a fine line between being understated and simply being uninteresting …. “
But as Ms. Reichardt told Nigel Smith of “theguardian.com”‘: “It all just seems everything is getting faster. Faster, faster, faster – we all want things faster. I guess there is a part of me that likes the pull against that … “
MICHELLE WILLIAMS shoulda won an Oscar for her role in this modestly budgeted mood piece, directed by KELLY REICHARDT from a short story by JON RAYMOND. Fact is, she wasn’t even nominated. (She was, however, nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.)
But Let’s Begin at the Beginning:
The film opens with Wendy playing fetch with her yellow Lab, Lucy. There is an easy familiarity between them. Any dog owner can relate.
Enjoy it while it lasts.
Wendy has the look of someone who has spent a lot of her life (to quote a Bob Seger lyric) running against the wind.
But even she is unprepared for the run of bad luck she experiences when she drives into a nondescript section of Portland on her way to Alaska to get a job in the canneries.
Her car breaks down, she is busted for shoplifting and when she is sprung from jail her dog is gone.
The film follows Wendy as she does her best to survive in this unsympathetic suburban landscape while trying to find her canine companion.
The Art of Independent Film-Making:
As in the best indie films it is not so much the story that grabs and holds your attention as it is the manner in which it is told.
Reichardt isn’t much for exposition. Rather than being a passive observer the viewer is invited to participate in the process.
For example, Wendy has a strained telephone conversation with relatives back in Indiana. We get it. She can’t go home again.
But why? There is a brief shot of a baby picture in her wallet. Is it Wendy’s child? Is that why things are tense on the homefront?
Reichardt leaves it up to us to sketch in the details.
From a film-making standpoint point there is much to admire here. Like the wide shot of Wendy walking through the down-on-its-luck neighborhood, a figure in a landscape framed against the side of an anonymous building. The muddy brown wall is bare except for a piece of graffiti. Someone has scrawled the word “Goner” in white paint.
Kudos as well for the striking visual imagery (boxcars in a train yard, birds on a wire framed against the blue sky) and ambient sound (the whistle of a train, the motorized whoosh of traffic, the film is alive with it.)
The slow and methodical pace of the film may be a bit of a culture shock to viewers accustomed to the smash and grab style of mainstream movies.
There is one thing you can count on, though, in a truly independent film like this one. The truth of the filmmaker’s vision shines through unfiltered by test screenings, focus groups and meddling studio suits safeguarding their investment in the editing room.
One Look is Worth a Thousand Words:
Ms. Williams doesn’t have a lot of dialogue in this film. She doesn’t need it. The expression on her face as she walks through the pound looking for her dog tells us a lot about her without saying a word. Like the dogs looking back at her from their cages, she is a stray: forlorn, lost, confused and looking for a friendly face to help her out of an existential dilemma.
Alone on the Road? I Can Relate:
You could look at Wendy and Lucy as an intimate and personal piece of minimalist art best appreciated by artsy reviewers and/or film students.
For me it is more accessible than that. I hitchhiked across Canada following my graduation from university. Naturally my parents did not share in my sense of adventure so, for me as well, going home was not an option. Reichardt and Williams presents Wendy’s plight with such spare unsentimental authenticity that the film brought back all those feelings of rootlessness I experienced myself in my misspent youth.
Sleeping in the park, changing your clothes in a service station washroom while someone pounds on the door, its all here in rigorously realistic detail.
Williams plays our homeless heroine with resolute conviction and although she is in practically every frame of this film she never slips out of character for a moment. It is a remarkable performance. Even for her. Like I said, she shoulda won an Oscar.
Buckaroos (and buckerettes) expecting the kind of western implied in the movie poster may be disappointed/baffled/teed off/all of the above.
Y’see, according to director KELLY REICHARDT, the everyday life of the real pioneers was less exciting – and judging from this film, a lot more monotonous – than in Hollywood movies.
The settlers in this film have “true grit” alright but it is not the rootin’, tootin’ type depicted in the recent remake of the classic duster.
Instead we see scene after scene of three pioneer families walking their covered wagons and oxen across the vast Oregon plain in the year 1845 led by a scruffy blowhard named Stephen Meeks (Bruce Greenwood.)
The only suspense in this film lies in whether Meeks is leading the families to the earthly paradise he promised or is hopelessly lost.
The men mutter about killing him (but are too timid to carry out their threats) while the women wash, cook and knit.
At one point Meeks and Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton), one of the settlers, capture a Native American (Ron Rondeaux) who has been shadowing the wagons.
The settlers are afraid of him and the bloodcurdling tales Meeks tells them about his Indian fighting experiences don’t help. However, the man is remarkably passive.
The racist Meeks wants to kill him anyway. Only Emily Tetherow (MICHELLE WILLIAMS), Solomon’s wife, has the salt to stand up to him.
Since the native appears healthy and hydrated, the settlers are torn between following Meeks (who has already proved to be undependable) or following the native in the hope he will lead them to water.
Savvy viewers who have seen Wendy and Lucy already know Miz Reichardt and screenwriting compadre JON RAYMOND do not make movies for short attention spans (or mainstream expectations, for that matter.)
However, even those folks may find their patience tested by the steady (some might say, plodding) pace.
The long shots of the three families set against the vastness of the prairies is truly haunting and the sunsets are gorgeous.
… but when the sun goes down things get a little dark (and I am not referring to the tone of the film necessarily).
I wanted the audience to get a sense of how dark it was in the prairie at night, Miz Reichardt tells James Ponsoldt in Filmmaker: The Magazine of Independent Film
In fact, the whole project seems geared towards letting the audience experience the film through the settlers’ eyes.
The character played by Mr. Rondeaux turns out to be quite verbal but unlike most traditional westerns this Indian does not conveniently speak English and there are no subtitles for his native dialect.
“I didn’t want to give the audience any information that the immigrants didn’t have. They have to figure out what this person’s all about without the resource of language,” Miz R tells New York Times culture reporter Joy Dietrich.
(The subtitles option is available on the DVD release. Good thing, too, because most of the dialogue sounds muffled or purposely recorded at a low level.)
The characters in Raymond’s screenplay are based on real people. (For example, there really was a Stephen Meeks, although in actual fact he led a wagon train of 200 settlers. Solomon Tetherow was one of them. According to the Oregon Historic Trails website, 23 members of the wagon train perished along the way.)
Although I was a little nonplussed by the film (and its unresolved ending) I have to admire Miz Reichardt’s purity of purpose.
So did a lot of reviewers and film fest jury members apparently. Meeks CutOff won the coveted SIGNIS prize at the Venice Film Festival, was nominated for a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and impressed 85% of reviewers polled on metacritic.com.
Not everyone was a fan, though. Cranky ol’ “Tex” Reed, writing in the New York Observer snipes, “Who goes to the movies for 104 minutes of punishment? Where is John Wayne, now that we need him?
Thanks to Reichardt/Raymond I now know that the real settlers didn’t spend all their time fighting off hostile natives and singing around the campfire.
Still, I kept waiting for something dramatic to happen. (I blame it on all those “old school” westerns I watched as a young lad.)
Fortunately for this cowboy, Miz Reichardt has hired some of my favorite actors. In addition to the constantly surprising Ms. Williams (so effective in Wendy and Lucy) and veteran character actor Patton, the cast includes the gifted PAUL DANO (the sullen teenager in Little Miss Sunshine and the young preacher in There Will Be Blood … talk about range!)
… the adorable ZOE KAZAN (The Exploding Girl) and Scottish actress-without-an-accent SHIRLEY HENDERSON (Life During Wartime).
In the end it doesn’t matter whether the audience likes the film or not.
“I teach for a living so for me making films is not a matter of money,” Miz Reichardt says on the website Reverse Shot.