It was inevitable that a woman would one day become the best director of Westerns. On the strength of 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff and now Certain Women, Kelly Reichardt has accomplished that feat before a woman has been elected President.
The two ideas are not unrelated. Dominating the Western and the White House have long been male prerogatives no less than was conquering the West, though according to revisionist Western historians, female pioneers did most of the actual settling.
It makes sense that Reichardt and Hillary Clinton should assume center stage simultaneously (assuming that Clinton does). If you want a paradigm of a resilient woman overcoming a macho blowhard with a Manifest Destiny agenda, look no further than Meek’s Cutoff, in which Michelle Williams played a pioneer on the Oregon Trail who faces off against the belligerent racist scout who wants to kill her wagon train’s captive Cayuse guide.
Revisionists contend that the pioneering project was driven by men who overcame their wives’ reluctance to head west to Montana, Oregon and California. Some women ended up living alone after they buried their children en route and their husbands went off gold-prospecting, never to return.
There were cases of single women building their own houses and tilling their own land. Other women went mad – like the three whom Hilary Swank’s hardy spinster ferries east from Nebraska to Iowa in The Homesman (2014).
Certain Women, a recent New York and London festival entry based by Reichardt on stories by Maile Meloy, drops in on three likely descendants of overlanders who settled in the small town of Livingston near the Absakora mountain range, an implacable, glinting presence throughout.
Lawyers Laura (Dern) and Beth (Stewart) and wife and mother Gina (Williams) share the look of trapped – or hunted – women. Reichardt milks the wry humor of Laura’s tolerating an unstable client, Fuller (Jared Harris), who ignores her opinions about his court case because she’s a woman.
Adding grist to her mill, her married lover (James Le Gros) decides to call it quits – on the phone when she’s distracted by Fuller acting out. Resigned to sexism, she can cope with being dumped because she hasn’t curdled inside. She’s the kind of forgiving woman who brings a milk shake to a man who once caused her to wear a bullet-proof jacket.
Sullen Gina, herself the kind of woman who stubs out a cigarette on a nature trail, has reasons for mistrusting her husband but has prevailed on him to build her a new house. Perhaps the most selfish woman Williams has played, she also prevails on a widowed neighbor (René Auberjonois) to give her some rocks he treasures. She doesn’t need them, but scoring points off the old man allows her to release the fumes of her sublimated rage.
Frazzled Beth has committed to teaching an education law evening class twice a week in a town so far from Livingston it requires an eight-hour round trip by road. After the first session, she accepts a lift to a diner from an interloping student, the ranch hand Jamie (Gladstone), and complains to her about her grueling schedule.
Beth has no inkling that Jamie has fallen for her. A subsequent diner run they make – not on wheels – is the film’s gentle but sexually coded idyll. It’s reminiscent of similar intimate moments in films about different female pioneers, Westward the Women (1951) and the English Far From the Madding Crowd (2015).
Jamie is the protagonist in this romantic strand of Certain Women. A mixed-heritage Native American who was raised on a Blackfeet reservation in Northwest Montana, Gladstone plays her as a woman untainted by the materialism that feeds Gina’s and Beth’s neuroses. Unlike the Native American dancers in faux ethnic costumes whom Laura glimpses in a Billings mall, Jamie remains close to nature.
She is socially awkward, however, and too naive to realize that spontaneously driving a couple of hundred miles to visit the unsuspecting Beth is a mistake that will hideously embarrass them both. Though Jamie is the most sympathetic of these women, it’s inevitable that, as a Native American, she’s an alien in urban situations.
All the women are seen driving and most of their journeys are chastening or humiliating, An eight-hour trip on a highway doesn’t equal eight hours in a wagon dragged by mules in the baking sun across land jealously guarded by hostile Sioux or Cheyenne, but that’s not to mitigate the pain experienced by some 21st-century women living way out west. Reichardt knows this as sure as the turning of the earth.
Certain Women is in theaters.