This was the only new film that I saw at the Leeds Film Festival and it goes immediately into my shortlist for films of the year. I selected it solely on the basis of its cinematographer Joshua James Richardson, who had previously shot God Own’s Country (UK 2017), one of my other candidates for best of the year so far. I’m so glad that the cinematography led me to The Rider.
Writer-director Chloé Zhao was born in China, went to ‘high school’ in London and university in the US where she now lives. Her first feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me appeared in 2015, playing in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. It tells the story of a sibling relationship in a Sioux family on the Pine Ridge ‘Reservation’ in South Dakota. The Rider is set on the same reservation, but this film went a step further, picking up the Art Cinema Award after also playing in Cannes.
I went into the film knowing little apart from the cinematography connection and the fact that a rodeo competition was involved. I didn’t really twig the Native American background at first. I’ll admit that the first few minutes were hard-going, but I soon tuned into the film and was engrossed from then on. This is a narrative fiction feature, but it is based on the lives of real people who play characters much like themselves, so it also has distinct elements of documentary. The trio of Jandreau family members play the three members of the Blackburn family. Brady is the older of Tim’s children and he has a younger sister, Lilly. The film opens with Brady getting up in the night to remove the dressing on his head and to ease out the staples that hold it in place. We can see immediately that he has suffered a terrible wound and that his skull has been seriously gashed, requiring staples to hold it together. Brady is not going to be riding ‘bucking broncos’ or bulls for quite a while.
What makes the film so effective for me are three factors. The cinematography is marvellous and the three actors are equally wonderful. But I’m also intrigued by the coming together of different narrative modes which is so well handled by the director. There is a sense of a ‘realist family melodrama’ developed around the three family members. Lilly has what I take to be a mild form of autism (the Press Pack calls it ‘Aspergers’). The dialogue suggests that she is 14 but I’d assumed she was older. Her autism doesn’t prevent her working around the home and she is a loving companion for Brady while father Tim tries to maintain some form of income, even if it requires selling assets. The film is also a documentary drama about the life of a horse trainer/rodeo performer, with Brady soon returning to demonstrate how he can calm a wild horse and train it to accept a rider. I enjoyed these sequences very much, but I think the film finally won me over completely when I realised that it is also a Western (and the combination of Western + melodrama is an absolute winner for me).
One of my all-time favourite films is Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (US 1972), in my book Peckinpah’s best film – a family melodrama built around the rodeo circuit with Robert Preston and Ida Lupino as Steve McQueen’s estranged parents and Joe Don Baker as his entrepreneurial younger brother. The Western melodrama is often built around the father-son relationship. The female character(s) are usually the calm centres around whom the males thrash about trying to resolve macho power struggles. The rodeo life is hard and unforgiving. If you survive those few seconds on a bull or a wild horse, you can be a hero. But you can just as easily be crushed by the weight of the animal, gored by a horn or trampled on. Brady loves his sister and his horses – and his dad. But he needs to make sense of his upbringing which has stressed the manly virtues of being tough. Getting back on the horse in his current predicament of being too physically vulnerable to ride competitively is very tough. At one point he goes to visit a friend and former champ who is still a young man, but who now lives in a care home because he is so severely disabled by his injuries. But what else can Brady do that will restore his self-confidence?
What is so refreshing in the film is the sense of community. When Brady needs to get a job, he meets an employment agent who knew his late mother from her high school days (and Brady visits his mother’s grave on a rise, just like a character in a Ford Western). The narrative doesn’t focus on the Native American community as such. Feeding the gambling machines in the bar does seem to be an issue but it isn’t pushed too much. Mostly, this is a small community where people seem to get on. At one point a couple of kids approach Brady when he is working in the local supermarket. For a moment I feared they were going to photograph him in order to humiliate him, but instead they just want a selfie with a celebrity. The filmed helped me to forget Trump for a moment and restored some sense of hope for working people in the US.
One of the attractions for audiences of Westerns has always been the landscapes and Richardson shoots these beautifully in ‘Scope at what is often termed the ‘magic hour’. I must have watched hundreds of Westerns but I don’t think I’ve ever thought about the actual physical movement of either horse or rider in an abstract sense before. By this, I mean that because the Western narrative drive is so strong and I’ve never ridden a horse, I’ve never thought before about the beauty of cowboy and horse together. In Richardson’s images under Zhao’s direction, I could see the horse’s muscles working and appreciate the riding skills.
The film has been bought by Sony Classics. The last Sony Classics film that I enjoyed, Maudie, got a fairly restricted release in the UK and deserved much more, so, please, UK exhibitors and Sony, get this onto as many screens as possible. There is a press release on the site of one of my favourite distributors, Mongrel Media in Canada.
Here’s a clip from the film of Brady with Apollo:
Mudbound is one of the best films of the year but you’ll be lucky (from a UK perspective) if you can see it in cinemas even though it was only released yesterday; it’s a ‘Netflix original’. And in the cinema I wish I could see it if only for Rachel Morrison’s beautiful cinematography. I’m not just referring to the sunsets but also the mud sodden fields were much of the action takes place. I’m not having a go at Netflix for at least they supported a black, female director – Dee Rees – in making an uncompromising film about racial hatred in 1940s America.
With high quality television sets, high definition streaming and sound bars, watching films at home has never been better. I remember watching Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR 1972) on a black and white portable television; I still enjoyed it but . . . One thing we’re likely to never know, however, is how popular Mudbound is with audiences as Netflix doesn’t release figures. That’s commercially sensitive information allowing it to know what types of film to make: anyone with a Netflix subscription watch it! The film’s won festival awards and is being linked to the Oscars but ‘box office’ figures will forever be absent.
I struggled slightly at the start of the film to orientate myself as the film sprawls somewhat in setting up the backgrounds of the two families; I also struggled with the accents of the characters but I could have put on the subtitles. However, the early scenes are important and once the McAllan arrive in Mississippi the narrative grips. Part of my struggle may have been because a number of characters have their own voiceovers which made it uncertain who were the main protagonists. I’m indifferent to voiceovers usually, unless it’s film noir, as they seem to be a failure of cinematic narration; however in Mudbound they work superbly to offer a multiplicity of viewpoints.
All the performances are extraordinary from Carey Mulligan to Mary J. Blige, unrecognisable (she’s in the image above) without her make up. Rees’ direction is subtle: I particularly liked a shot on V.E. Day with Ronsel, a member of General Patton’s Black Panthers, with his German lover looking out of the window at the celebrations in the street. He’s in the background and, despite the joyous scene, it’s clear he’s unhappy because it means his relationship is now over. She’s equally confident in the battle scenes conveying the visceral horror and fully setting up the relationship between two veterans when they return from war.
It was a rainy Saturday night with nothing on TV so we rented Words and Pictures. I selected this on the basis that it was a Fred Schepisi film starring Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen and it was described on iTunes as a comedy. This film wasn’t, as far as I’m aware, released in UK cinemas. That says more about assumptions about UK cinema audiences than the quality of the film. And I think that older audiences might enjoy the film. Yes, it’s highly conventional and predictable but Binoche grappling with Clive Owen is always going to be watchable.
The setting is Vancouver standing in for somewhere in New England where Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is an English honours teacher in a prep school, having once been a promising writer. Things are not going well for Jack. His students are not engaged and his son barely speaks to him (I don’t remember any references to the young man’s mother). As a result, Jack is hitting the vodka and his tenure at the school is starting to look precarious. The ‘inciting incident’ for the narrative is the arrival of a new ‘fine art honours’ teacher Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche). She’s beautiful, intelligent, and talented – and she has rheumatoid arthritis which is developing quickly. Jack is woken from his slumber by her arrival and he playfully challenges her with word games. He’s surprised when she promotes her art work over his literature with the students she shares with him. He retaliates with a challenge to show that the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true. (He also recognises that the challenge may produce student work to fill his ailing school magazine – that the principal intends to close down.)
The setting and plot do perhaps suggest Schepisi’s fellow Australian Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society and in a different way, The Mona Lisa Smile with Julia Roberts. But those films combined the question of what happens to ‘maverick’ teachers with the story of the impact of their teachings on their students’ lives. Words and Pictures is really only interested in the students as devices to develop the storyline about the potential romance between Owen and Binoche. I don’t think that it is a conventional romcom, however. It is certainly witty and there are moments when it seems about to get serious about the afflictions suffered by the two teachers, both of whom struggle to get back to their best artistic endeavours. But in the end, Jack’s alcoholism seems rather too easy to overcome and Dina’s arthritis is similarly suddenly controllable by medication. A conventional ending beckons and this is indeed mainstream entertainment. The pleasure is in the central pairing. I think Clive Owen is a very under-rated actor and here he is presented as dishevelled, bleary-eyed and far from a romantic lead, but he makes the character work. Juliette Binoche produced her own artworks for the film and the scenes of her composing her large paintings despite her disability are very well done. The two leads work well together.
The film seems to have suffered from an unusual limited distribution pattern over the whole summer of 2014 in North America, but only in a maximum of 216 cinemas for a few weeks and the rest of the time much smaller numbers – I’m assuming that for several weeks it only screened in Canada. It doesn’t seem to have been released in the UK or France. I hope it has found its audience on DVD and download – this is the kind of small film that has been most squeezed in the market over the last few years and it’s the kind of film we miss.
Maybe I should leave my response to mother! at that.
There’s a lot of merit in being bludgeoned by a film; you know you’re alive. And I’ve no problem with a film that, at its ending, makes you think: “WTF?”. At least I’m thinking.
I like to think I’m pretty cine literate, and fairly literate generally, though religion isn’t my thing so I tend to miss those references. The LA Times insists the film is a religious allegory and it’s an intriguing argument. When I checked out imdb I saw all the characters are archetypes, (Mother, Man, Woman, Cupbearer, Damsel etc.) except for Javier Bardem’s poet (Him); in the film itself the characters are nameless but I can see how the archetypes suggest a religious reading. The title, however, doesn’t capitalise the ‘m’ of mother so that’s confusing.
There are spoilers ahead but it’s possible, such is the brilliance of the film, that spoilers are irrelevant. The film is a visceral experience both visually and through the Dolby 7.1 soundtrack. I’d assumed the latter was new, as I hadn’t noticed their credit before, but the system has been used since 2010 and is ubiquitous in mainstream cinema. I mention it because I think there are more sound close ups in this movie than I’ve ever heard. It’s centred on Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) who’s clearly mentally unstable, like a Poe hero whose senses are hyper thus motivating the intensely detailed soundscape
The horror genre fits the film closest; Lawrence reminded me, in more ways than one, of Deneuve in Repulsion (UK 1965) as she listens to the walls of her home. There are a few frights as characters appear from ‘nowhere’ and make Mother jump. Toward the end, hundreds of characters appear from nowhere in a sensory onslaught that leaves the house, or is it the world?, a battle zone.
The way Aronofsky, Lawrence’s partner, shoots her is like the Dardenne brothers’ shoot the eponymous Rosetta (France-Belgium, 1999) (apparently he uses the same style in The Wrestler, US-France, 2008) with the camera tight on, following her obsessively. It is through Mother’s consciousness we experience the events.
I mention the relationship between the lead and director because it’s an unavoidable issue with this film. The central narrative tension is between Mother, who isn’t literally a mother at the start, and Him, a great poet who has writer’s block. She’s a generation younger than him (mirroring in age Aronofsky and Lawrence), hangs on his every word, and is a ‘domestic goddess’. She does everything for him; when serving dinner he insists on helping and then changes his mind. Some men’s lazy dependence on women is satirised.
Clearly Mother’s devotion is not reciprocated. It is hardly domestic bliss but when Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) turn up the cliché ‘all hell starts to break loose’ is entirely accurate. Even I understood the Abel-Cain reference when one of their sons kills the other.
What’s great about the first section of the film is the allegorical nature of the narrative is rooted in believable interactions. Pfeiffer is particularly good a being a guest ‘from hell’ but manages to make her behaviour seem almost reasonable. Even the funeral party manages to appear possible but after the poet manages to produce another masterpiece, it took him nine months, then the wheels come off and the film enters a phantasmagoric realm.
At the party celebrating Him’s new masterpiece, Lawrence looks like a Greek goddess; he calls her a ‘goddess’ and her dress is classical in style. This seems key to me: Mother is his muse and gives him everything. Lawrence may be Aronofsky’s muse but he’s made many cracking films before so he is obviously not reliant upon her. It’s clear (I think) that he is making a film about creativity which may be on the level the LA Times suggests: Him is God and Mother is Earth. It could also be about the more ‘mundane’ level of art.
At this level it shows the artist to be entirely self-centred and our sympathies are certainly with his muse. The idea that great art requires great sacrifice is dramatized but it is the muse that suffers for his art. Although the muse embodies inspiration, it actually exists within the artists so splitting her from him doesn’t make sense: if she suffers, he suffers.
I am in danger of entangling myself in a film that may refuse to be unwound. That’s okay as it’s one of the most original films I’ve seen which is enough reason to see it even if, like many, you think it’s crap.
I approached The Big Sick with trepidation. I knew it had been very well reviewed and had opened strongly in the UK for an American Independent film. I wasn’t bothered about Amazon as a studio – at least their films are getting into cinemas – but Judd Apatow as producer was a bit of a worry and I’d never heard of director Michael Showalter. The only other thing I knew about it was that it focused on a relationship between a Pakistani man and a white woman – and that one commentator criticised the film for perpetuating the stories of South Asian men and white women. When were the gender identities in such relationships going to change? This charge reminded me of scenes in East is East (UK 1999), a film I have always found offensive in its representations of Pakistani women and girls, even though – or perhaps because – it is a narrative written by a British Pakistani man.
My fears were not realised. I found The Big Sick to be an affecting romantic drama with some comedy elements. It isn’t a romcom as such (it doesn’t have a romcom structure or generic characters) and by the end I was in tears and not tears of laughter. The film is written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjani and is based on the story of their relationship, though I hope that some of it is an invention. Kumail (an experienced TV actor) plays himself but the Emily character is played by Zoe Kazan, who I now realise I have seen before in films like Meek’s Cutoff (2010).
The Big Sick opens in a comedy club where Kumail is doing his stand-up routine and Emily is in the audience. They meet after the show and a romance begins. The ‘impediment’ to the prospect of a lasting relationship is the attitude of Kumail’s traditional parents. Emily invites Kumail to meet her parents but Kumail has not told his parents about Emily and he has rebuffed all of the stream of young Pakistani women his mother has found for him. At this point, the major element that makes this romance ‘different’ appears in the form of a serious illness that strikes down Emily and puts her in a coma. Kumail is forced into a relationship with Emily’s parents, the three meeting at her bedside. In a sense, the romance continues with Emily absent. The resolution of the narrative affected me a great deal and I’m not sure why.
There are a number of issues in and about the film that I found interesting. Kumail’s family members are played by actors from Hindi cinema, the Bollywood star Anupam Kher and the less well-known Zenobia Shroff (Little Zizou, India 2008) as his parents, plus British actor Adeel Akhtar (playing for comedy as in Four Lions, UK 2010) as his brother Naveed. It’s good to see a recognisable South Asian family in an American film. Emily’s parents are played by Holly Hunter and comedy actor Ray Romano. This couple seemed more obviously played for laughs. Having recently watched Holly Hunter’s strange character in the first series of Top of the Lake (NZ-Aus-UK 2012), I found her performance too exaggerated in both that series and this film – and I struggled to decipher her dialogue at times. In the end this didn’t spoil my enjoyment. I watch very little US TV or stand-up comedy and I can imagine that for audiences who watch both regularly, there will be a different ‘feel’ to the film (I read the other stand-ups who work with Kumail as not very funny, but perhaps I’m wrong?). I think it’s the first American film I’ve seen where the Asian family seems more familiar than the American. I wonder how British Asians have read the film? According to Box Office Mojo, the UK is its biggest overseas market (but only just ahead of Australia) and so far it has made $100,000 in India.
A few weeks ago A Ghost Story was included in a list of ‘post-horror’ films in a Guardian piece by Steve Rose. Now it’s been released in the UK to some glowing reviews and some extravagant claims. I fear, however, that for many audiences it might provoke an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ response. Rose foresees this when he notes that another possible example of the trend, It Comes at Night (like A Ghost Story, given a 4 star review by the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw) has been denounced on social media. Rose suggests:
Mainstream moviegoers went in expecting a straight-up horror; they came out unsure about what they’d seen, and they didn’t like it.
The point being that a ‘post-horror film’ is not really a horror film at all. The director of A Ghost Story, David Lowery, is quoted by Rose as saying:
I wanted to engage with the archetypes and iconography of ghost films and haunted house movies, without ever crossing over into actually being a horror film.
Well, that seems clear enough. But what if you haven’t read the quote and all you see is a film poster for A Ghost Story with a load of 4 and 5 star review notices? You’d reasonably expect something that resembles a horror movie or at least an entertaining fantasy. My real concern is the implication of Rose’s statement above. If you are a mainstream movie fan, you won’t ‘get’ the post-horror film. This suggests a new form of cinema snobbery.
If you want to see the film, I suggest avoiding Peter Bradshaw’s review since he tells you most of the plot. I’ll just mention a few of the elements in the film. The single point that is emphasised in the poster, the trailer and all the promo pics is that Lowery’s ghost is represented by the white sheet of the traditional genre image with two eye holes that are disturbingly deep and dark. This seemingly substantial ghost moves slowly through every scene after the death of the Casey Affleck character early in the narrative – but it can’t be seen by others, only ‘felt’ by some. Affleck and Rooney Mara are a couple (the characters are not named) on the verge of moving out of a suburban house when an accident kills Affleck. The rest of the 90 minutes follows the ghost.
What follows is sometimes funny, sometimes silly, sometimes potentially moving, sometimes irritating but often, I’m afraid, a bit boring. Lowery wants us to know that ghosts aren’t stuck in one time period, they exist ‘outside time’, so although the ghost doesn’t move that much, we can see it in different time periods. This is hardly a revolutionary idea but it does have possibilities for some kind of meditation on time. At one point, I did wonder if what I was watching was similar to the structural avant-garde films of the 1970s by artists like Hollis Frampton with Zorn’s Lemma in which images are repeated with slight variations and the viewer must spot the patterns or Michael Snow with Wavelength comprising a single ‘zoom in’ which nevertheless builds narrative tension. But I decided A Ghost Story wasn’t as interesting.
A Ghost Story does have its moments and the ‘mini lecture’ by Will Oldham in a party scene will be the test for most audiences. Oldham is an actor and musician, perhaps best known for his work in two Kelly Reichardt films. Like Reichardt in Meek’s Cutoff (2011), Lowery opts for an Academy ratio screen shape, but I’m not sure why. Reichardt’s films move slowly, but she shares a novelist’s ability to tell stories through nuances and tiny details. I didn’t get that from A Ghost Story. Here’s the US trailer. It indicates the interesting images and hints at some of the plot points, but it can’t really represent the slow pace of the narrative. If you want a horror film, I’d watch Get Out again. If it’s a romance you want, I’d try Maudie.
Blumhouse has a reputation for low-budget horror productions, such as the very successful Paranormal Activity (2009-15) and The Purge (2013-) series. Get Out has beaten them and parlayed a $5m budget into, to date, $184m worldwide box office. In order to attain such numbers it’s clearly broken out of its teen core audience and shows what can be done when genre pleasures, this is a good horror film, are woven into the zeitgeist. Jordan Peele, the writer-director, has made a film that is about race in the 21st century.
Black British actor, Daniel Kaluuya, takes the lead as Chris who’s going to meet the parents of his white, preppy, girlfriend Rose Armitage, played by Allison Williams. He asks if they know he’s black and she tells him her parents aren’t racist. Chris is obviously not entirely reassured by the blasé statement because he knows that even if they aren’t racist it doesn’t mean that they won’t treat him in a racist way so embedded, particularly in the American psyche, is the politics of slavery.
The end credits state the film’s shot in Alabama, however this location (to my eyes at least) is not obvious in the film. At first I thought this was a missed trick, evoking the Deep South would immediately trigger associations of slavery, however I realised that Peele didn’t want to make a point about the racism of Old America, he was showing racism now anywhere in middle class America.
Peele leads us into the horror with great skill. The Prologue shows a black man being attacked on a suburban street; when he states before the attack that the suburbs are scary he means for a black person. After this the build-up is slow, with enough hints (particularly from Catherine Keener’s mum) that beneath the wealthy, liberal surface there lurks something not right. Allison’s dad points to a cellar, that resonant setting for horror, and states it’s sealed off because of black mould. Chris’s discomfort increases as the wealthy white and their black servants surround him; when he tries to connect with a ‘brother’ he finds incomprehension.
Peele takes us on a tour of references including Invasion of the Body Snatchers (US, 1956), The Stepford Wives (US, 1975 and 2004) and, in the clinical and opulent mise en scène of the Armitage house, Kubrick’s The Shining (UK 1980). These references avoid being derivative because they’re used to make a statement about contemporary racial politics, particularly the #Blacklivesmatter campaign in America. In a fantastic climax it appears the police have arrived to save Chris. He puts up his hands, his white girlfriend is lying on the floor crying for help… Peele knows most in the audience would realise that there is good chance, in those circumstances in reality, that the police would summarily execute Chris.
One false note for me was LilRey Howery’s Rod, Chris’s ‘comic turn’ mate, whose bumbling detracts from the drama too much. As a horror film it has enough gore at the climax to satisfy most and not too much to detract for the squeamish.
I imagine that the film is popular with minority ethnic audiences and demonstrates, like the never-ending Fast and Furious franchise (2009-), that producers daring enough not to assume ‘white’ is the default setting can be a profitable route. The film garnered a bit of controversy in America when Samuel L. Jackson questioned the casting of a British actor rather than a ‘brother’. Kaluuya’s considered response, in Vanity Fair, suggested he is a brother because he is an ‘outsider’:
“When I’m around black people I’m made to feel ‘other’ because I’m dark-skinned,” he explained. “I’ve had to wrestle with that, with people going ‘You’re too black.’ Then I come to America and they say, ‘You’re not black enough.’ I go to Uganda, I can’t speak the language. In India, I’m black. In the black community, I’m dark-skinned. In America, I’m British. Bro!”
Get Me Out is about outsiders and how some poeple use liberal attitudes as a badge of their own character and not as an ideological position to fight for equality. Although not quite directly related to this, an altercation on CNN between a white Trump supporting pundit and three African American voices shows how the default setting of debate is the white setting – click here.
Although I’d seen Kelly Reichardt’s previous three films, I still wasn’t quite prepared for Certain Women. I watched it intently but despite foreknowledge about her approach to narrative I was still surprised when it just stopped. I’ve thought a lot about the film over the last few days. Ms Reichardt is a favourite of many (most?) critics and I understand why. But her films still don’t get a wide release. She doesn’t make it easy for audiences but I would urge you to watch the films if you get the chance.
The ‘certain women’ of the title are four women in Montana. They are involved in three separate narratives which are subtly linked together in indirect ways. In the first we meet a small town lawyer played by Laura Dern who finds herself exhausted and exasperated by a difficult client. In the second, Michelle Williams is a business woman with a husband and teenage daughter who don’t seem totally enamoured of her attempts to build a weekend cottage using sustainable local materials. The third story features Kristen Stewart as a recent law graduate with little money forced to drive across the state to teach night school. There, by accident, she meets a young woman working in a solitary job as a ranch hand looking after a small herd over winter. This character (who some reviewers refer to as ‘Jamie’) is played by Lily Gladstone who is part Native American. I have to agree with all the critics and festival juries who pick out her performance over her more established fellow actors – each of whom are very good in their roles.
Chosen as the ‘Best Film’ at the London Film Festival in 2016, Certain Women has since been extensively reviewed so here I want to focus on just a limited range of responses. (Sophie Mayer has an excellent article on the film in Sight and Sound, March 2017 – it isn’t online as far as I can see but Mayer covers some of the same ground here.) Kelly Reichardt was born in Florida and her first film was made there, but her recent work is set in the North West, especially in Oregon. Landscape is crucially important in these films and Reichardt began her career with a fascination for photography. She has been well-served by her director of photography Christopher Blauvelt who has shot her last three films and she herself has taken on the film editing for her five major features. She has re-iterated that she hopes audiences will look to find meanings in her films rather than have them explained. The first shot of Certain Women (the whole film was shot on 16mm, blown up) is a static long shot as a mile-long freight train gradually comes into view. I’m not sure if I immediately thought of Brokeback Mountain at this point, but I certainly did later. The first shot of Brokeback is a long shot of a truck stopping early in the morning, in Wyoming not Montana but the landscape is similar. There are huge spaces, mountains, big skies and only a few people in small towns. I remember two other specific moments from early in the film. In one the camera lingers on a scene in a small shopping mall where children in Native American costume are performing a dance. It feels like a documentary. Sound is important as well. Laura Dern’s character, despondent in her car, turns on the radio/CD and we hear Guy Clark’s ‘Boats to Build’:
It’s time for a change
I’m tired of that same o’l same
The same ol’ words the same ol’ lines
The same ol’ tricks and the same ol’ rhymes
Days precious days
Roll in and out like waves
I got boards to bend I got planks to nail
I got charts to make I got seas to sail
I didn’t register those lyrics at the time, but when I read them now, they seem like the perfect ironic accompaniment to the desolate lives of the characters. I’ve never been to Montana but I’ve read a few stories and watched a lot of movies. The stories that interest me most are those which are either set in the final days of the ‘frontier’, both ‘real’ and mythical, or which comment in some way on the world of the contemporary ‘Western’ with its lonely cowhands and characters seemingly bereft of purpose. Any time after the 1880s is perfect for the ‘twilight Western’ and Brokeback Mountain is one of the most prominent examples of this kind of story. Brokeback began as an E. Annie Proulx short story that was adapted by Diana Ossana and the ‘dean of the twilight Western’, Larry McMurtry (also responsible for the Montana-set Lonesome Dove and Texas-set The Last Picture Show). Another writer with a trilogy of Montana-set variations on the twilight Western is Thomas McGuane with Rancho Deluxe (1975), The Missouri Breaks (1976) and Tom Horn (1980). The (anti-)heroes of these stories are generally men who can’t come to terms with the decline of the West and its codes and are defeated/discouraged by the modernised West. (Jane Fonda in Alan J. Pakula’s Comes a Horseman from 1978 is one of the few female leads.)
Kelly Reichardt began to critique the Western with Meek’s Cutoff (2010) in which Michelle Williams plays a woman with more sense than the men on her pioneer wagon train – but, of course, the men don’t listen to her. The four women of Certain Women still live to some extent in a world of men who don’t listen or who make foolish decisions which the women will pay for in some way. For Certain Women Reichardt has adapted short stories by Montana novelist Maile Meloy from her collections Half in Love (2002) and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (2009). It occurs to me that each of the three stories could be related to Western narratives and themes. The first story develops into a familiar tale about sheriffs and fugitives with Laura ‘used’ by the law because she is compassionate and can defuse a potentially tricky situation. What does she get out of it? It’s as if she’s restricted by those traditional roles for women in the Western – schoolteacher, pioneer mother or saloon girl. The third story about the lonely ranch hand and the exhausted teacher is a sad romance, beautifully played and paced and its standout is the short sequence in which the two young women are together on the horse that takes them between the school and the diner. This story has obvious echoes of Brokeback (in which, as I’ve just remembered, Montana-born Michelle Williams is the abandoned wife and mother). In the twilight Western there are often two characters – one who tries to adapt to modernity and one who is trapped inside the codes of the West (which in these stories are usually honourable codes). The exhausted Beth and ‘natural’ ranch hand again seem familiar.
In the second story from Certain Women Williams is Gina, the ‘strong woman’ still not sure if she is doing the right thing and struggling with herself as she does what those pioneer women had to do and build her own house (or at least, direct and organise the men she finds to do it). In this story the key scene is her encounter with the old man who has a pile of sandstone blocks that she would like to use for her house. He doesn’t need them but how much should she pay for them? Is she right to ask for them? If he offers them to her for free should she take them? The man with the stones is played by René Auberjonois, a name I recognised more than a face. Later I realised I had seen him in countless Westerns as well as the films of Robert Altman (Reichardt in an interview says she used to use his voice as the bartender in McCabe and Mrs Miller in exercises for film students). While her husband says nothing, Gina tries to engage the old man when he looks out on his land and points out the birds. Gina mimics the bird calls and we can’t be sure whether she is genuinely interested in the birds or just practised in negotiation. Again she seems to be struggling with a ‘modern’ role. Is she any happier than in her previous incarnation as pioneer woman?
The first story, in which Laura at one point cries out, imagining what it might be like to be a man who is listened to and given credence, is the only one with conventional (i.e. generic) ‘action’ – but even then its conclusion is subverted. In all three stories, the meaning is conveyed through landscape, cinematography and sound. It’s also ironic that one of the markers of the mise en scène of the ‘woman’s picture’ is costume. Reichardt may well have made an ‘anti-woman’s picture’ (as well as an ‘anti-Western’ and an ‘anti-melodrama’?). Costume says a lot here. In the first scene Laura returns to her office from a lunch-time tryst, late and a little bedraggled. Her sweater is half tucked in her skirt and half pulled out. We watch her climb the stairs and then come down when she is called to the phone by her receptionist. We know it isn’t going to be an easy afternoon. By contrast, Michelle Williams as Gina is seen first in running gear (and headphones) and then securely wrapped up for the cold – ‘properly’ dressed and with her hair tied up. At the end of the episode when she smokes a cigarette and sips a glass of wine at the chilly barbecue she has organised it seems like a visualisation of the contradiction between her efficient businesswoman and her striving for authenticity. Like Laura, Gina seems to represent the two twilight Western characters in a single conflicted character.
In the third episode, Beth (Kristen Stewart) wears clothes that look as tired as she is. Meanwhile, Lily Gladstone as the ranch hand is dressed for manual work but looks lively and alert (for the moment anyway). Both Wendy Ide in the Observer and A. O. Scott in the New York Times comment on Kristen Stewart’s performance. Ide argues that we know her performance is exceptional but it’s hard to figure out what she does. Scott makes the point that she successfully conveys the character’s tiredness and despair, but still retains enough of the glamour that appeals to the ranch hand. In terms of the ‘anti’ twilight Western however, the ranch hand who is closest to the land and open to the romanticism of the myth of the West is the one who is going to suffer. The other three characters all seem aware that they are attempting to ‘make it’ in the contemporary Western scenario, but so far are still trapped in their mythical roles or are unsure how far they have escaped them. You might wonder why I haven’t mentioned the male characters in the film. There are two significant male roles, both of which have a narrative importance, but one of which is so inconsequential as a character that I didn’t realise his significance until after the screening. There is also a dog (there often is in a Reichardt film). I didn’t know there were corgis in the US. They don’t look well-adapted for ranch work, but Wikipedia tells me they are bred as ‘herding dogs’ (see the trailer below). I chose the German trailer as the best on offer for this blog.
I had to travel for four hours to see Certain Women – not as far as Kristen Stewart’s character, but it would be good if distributors and exhibitors had a bit more faith in films like this. There’s a good reason why Kelly Reichardt excites cinephiles. She makes films that make you think – and feel.