It takes a certain kind of director to film a short story, or a series of short stories, and really pull it off. Although different kinds of short stories have different attributes, for the most part they resonate when they are suggestive, evocative, but refuse to quite gel or coalesce into a discernible meaning or message. That’s particularly the case with Maile Meloy’s collection Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, which focuses on a series of people, often women, coming to terms with junctures in their lives, often in Meloy’s native Montana, even if these junctures aren’t always clear or transparent. For the most part, the stories start by setting the reader adrift in a kind of disorienting banality, only to create an emergent and elusive sense of significance and partial catharsis through occasional and incidental detail. Drawing upon three of these stories, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women is one of the deftest adaptations of a short story anthology that I have seen, rivalling Robert Altman’s Short Cuts in the way in which it manages to capture the spirit of each individual narrative while remaining true to the ambience and ambit of the anthology of the whole.
Of course, this is a very different kind of project from Short Cuts. Whereas Altman revelled in the unexpected connections and contiguities between his stories, as well as the sheer wealth and proliferation of stories – both of which felt like a way of mapping and containing the Los Angeles cityscape – Reichardt opts for a more provisional partial continuity, converging her own sparse aesthetic with Meloy’s suggestive sparseness for a film that in arguably closer to the Middle American spirit of Carver’s own writing than Altman’s adaptation and transformation. As a result, Certain Women never quite feels like an anthology film, an ensemble film or a feature-length film, but instead occupies a fluid position between all three options that in many ways feels like the ideal medium for Reichardt’s unique directorial sensibility. After all, most of her films have played as short stories stretched out to feature-length, while as a body of work her films seem to relate to each other in much the same way as short stories in an anthology, not least in their shared sense of regionalist ambience. While Oregon tends to be her backdrop of her choice, the move to Montana just clarifies that this ambience is as much a mindset as a matter of any particular place. Maybe it’s because I’ve only seen it recently, but even the Everglades suburbs of River of Grass feel part of this same regional and rural America, which always feels like a version of the country shot from places that were once frontiers but have now become something more diffuse, melancholy and invisible.
In some ways, that creates a natural affinity between Reichardt’s films and Westerns – or at least Western landscapes – and Certain Women takes place against some of the most epic vistas in Reichardt’s career: huge snow-capped mountains that continually linger around the fringes of the action, exuding a cool, elliptical emptiness that is periodically contoured by malls, freeways, carparks and all the other endless roadside infrastructure of Middle America. One of the first exchanges centres around the colour taupe, and in many ways the tone of the film is taupe as well, as scene after scene unfolds against a chilly, grey-brown landscape that is occasionally alleviated by flashes of snow and sky but for the most part exudes a earthier, rockier and more geological sense of time and space (the second story revolves around excavating a decade-old sandstone structure). For another director, that might seem like an opportunity for sublime sight lines and classical framing, but Reichardt continually turns to awry details – a door that keeps swinging ajar, a half-tucked-in shirt – as well as awry compositions – characters staring out of windows that reflect and refract asymmetrical, off-kilter, landscapes – to open up a more pervasive sense of emptiness, and a more pervasive sense of space, that could ever be achieved from simply shooting empty space directly. In many ways that sense of emptiness and blankess as something you have to work to see is Reichardt’s particular version of regionalism, as well as what imbues her scenes and sequences with such a delicate balance between continuity and discontinuity. In this particular context, that works beautifully to capture the transition between one story and the next, as well as within stories: more than in any of her other films, Reichardt’s editing feels utterly inextricable from her direction, easing us from one shot to another as deftly as we might flick from one page or story in a book to the next.
In terms of the individual stories, it’s hard to give much of a plot synopsis, just because what makes the film so striking is the way in which Reichardt manages to retain all the elliptical suggestiveness of her source material, to the point where each narrative almost feels the germ of a feature-length film, full of so many possibilities and lingering questions that a straightforward summary almost seems beside the point. Suffice to say that all three stories are in some sense about women who have a lack of other women in their lives, and are starved for real contact and communion with other women. In the first, a lawyer (Laura Dern) is required to defuse a hostage situation with a difficult client; in the second, another woman (Michelle Williams) faces various challenges from her husband and daughter while trying to build their new home; in the third, a younger woman (Lily Gladstone) forms a deep attachment to and affection for another lawyer (Kristen Stewart) from a distant town who temporarily takes up a night school position in her local community. Although the stories are only linked in a tentative manner, one common denominator is that they all feature actresses – Dern, Williams, Gladstone and Stewart – with extraordinarily resonant faces, all of which are commensurate – in very different ways – with the elliptical blankness and evocative suggestiveness of each story.
In lieu of sustained or explicit narrative connections between each piece, then, pace is especially important, and in many ways it feels as if the momentum of the film is bound up with the procession of faces as much as the progression of anything resembling a story. While the first story is fairly recognisable as Reichardt’s style, the second is far more restrained than anything she has done before and a testament to her ongoing working relationship with Williams, with both women taking each other to a new level of elliptical blankness and evocative austerity in their respective directorial and acting careers. By contrast, the third story is the most romantic and erotic moment in Reichardt’s career to date, exuding a smouldering but also deeply sentimental sense of longing – for love, for sex, for friendship – that is utterly shattering after the previous narrative. Indeed, this third section almost feels like a feature film in its own right – it is as long as the precious two combined – as Reichardt crams her mise-en-scene with dogs, horses and other animals, creating a raw and urgent sense of life that’s all the more intense for being constrained by such a suspenseful slow build. As Gladstone’s character goes through her daily routines while waiting for Stewart’s character to return every Tuesday and Thursday, Reichardt’s signature slowness takes on a new richness and soulfulness, imbuing every rural vista and procedure with an almost unbearable erotic import.
In a funny kind of way, though, what makes this last story so precious is precisely that it is not the feature film that it could so easily have been. Just as it seems that winter is going to peak with Gladstone’s final confrontation with Stewart – the culmination of a wonderful sequence that sees her driving four hours to town and cruising the streets for an entire night as she waits for Stewart’s law firm to open – the thaw breaks and the film’s one fleeting, shattering use of non-diegetic music is subsumed back into a final coda that gives us one last glimpse of each of the three women as their lives settle back into the deep silences that Reichardt knows so well. In these last ten minutes, the familiarity of the first story, the austerity of the second story, and the eroticism of the third story converge on a dispersed melancholy not unlike the strange feeling – satiated but still yearning – that you get when you come to the end of a brilliant short story anthology. Even at the peak of her powers, Reichardt’s vision as a director still feels emergent: far from arriving at any definitive or summative statement, Certain Women is determined to keep yearning and keep searching, and that’s quite a remarkable gesture from a director who has reached such a venerable and venerated stage in her career.