Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 17, 2016 5:59 am 
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Lost women in Montana

This time Kelly Reichardt, the respected Amerindie director and chronicler of women (and sometimes men) in states of aimlessness, has combined stories by Maile Meloy about three women living in the same rural town in Montana and a fourth further flung, filmed with an eye for the poetry of the ordinary in handsome earth tones. The first two segments are connected by James Le Gros, who's the lover of small town lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) and husband of Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams). Three tales unfold, but though the first has crime drama elements and even a kidnapping and police stakeout (low keyed, of course), only the third, about a lost young lawyer, Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart), who attracts the hopeless affections of Jamie, a lonesome cowgirl (first-timer Lily Gladstone), is emotionally touching. Maybe Jared Harris, as Laura Dern's client and an injured carpenter who's lost a workman's compensation case, gets the prize for most pathetic, ranging from tears to threatening mass murder, winding up in prison abandoned by his wife for a convict in another state. But it is hard to care about him, or about Laura Dern's guilt at failing to save him. But as Jamie, Lily Gladstone is remarkably real.

In the middle segment, where James LeGros immediately reappears as the husband of Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams), she is preoccupied with building a house out in the country, and we follow a singularly unfulfilling trip withRyan ( Le Gros) and their boyish, hostile daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier) to persuade an old man to sell them his pile of sandstone blocks. The old man agrees - maybe; but Le Gros uses passive-agrressive comments to make sure the commitment isn't clear. Seeking to interpret the film, A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times, "Those rocks are at once symbols of transience and of permanence." Okay. So what? Similarly Laura (Dern) spends time with the exploding (or imploding) Fuller (Jared Harris), but without really helping him. The episode when Fuller kidnaps a Samoan guard and Laura is sent up to reason with him wearing a bullet proof vest is the most excruciating of the lot. We submit to lengthy delays, Fuller forcing Laura to read passages from his case that confirm he was screwed, only to have Fuller taken away to jail. Her visit to him in prison later provides a dreary, inconclusive fullow-up.

On the other hand the third segment has the quality of an actual narrative. Beth Travis (Stewart) is a young lawyer who's taken a side job teaching the night course in "school law," about which she admits she knows nothing. The students are all local teachers whose real interest is just complaining about injustices or limitations in their jobs. A tentative, distant, but fraught relationship develops between Beth and Jamie (Lily Gladstone), who has just wandered in, and keeps coming for a few classes (while they last) to accompany Beth to the local diner and chat. Jamie learns something of Beth's background but Beth's main concern is she miscalculated how bad the drive was, four hours each way. When it's announced Beth isn't coming any more, Jamie makes the long drive to her town and stalks her, waits up all night. She can't declare her love and it wouldn't help if she could, but the long held shot of Jamie's face as she drives away empty handed is heartwrenching. The rest of the film, touching back on the two other stories, is anticlimactic. And we note that while Jamie remains in her Brokeback Mountain world of pretty horses and lonely pining, the third, more resonant, tale has become hers and not Beth's.

If Reichardt achieves authenticity and a sense of real time in these sad, dreary tales, there's also a lack of economy and a lack of verve, almost a stubborn clumsiness. And so this time it's tempting to side somewhat with Rex Reed in the Observer, who commends the acting in this film but condemns Reichardt's style. "Nothing ever happens in her movies," Reed says, "but a handful of critics rave, they end up on the overstuffed programs at film festivals like Sundance and are never seen or heard from again." That isn't really true. But this is a failed movie with one powerful thread, and I wish Reichardt's 2014 Night Moves had gotten all the attention that her 2010 Meek's Cutoff did.

Certain Women, 107 mins, debuted at Sundance Jan. 2016, and was shown at 17 other international festivals, including London, Mill Valley, and New York. Screened for the review at IFC Center 16 Oct. 2016. Metascore 82%.

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