Kelly Reichardt’s movies deal with the quiet desperation of alienated Americans, from the wandering hippie in “Old Joy” to the lost settlers on the Oregon trail in “Meek’s Cutoff.” This year’s “Certain Women” is an especially potent survey of those themes, an ensemble drama of working class characters across the sleepy regions of rural Montana searching for elusive happiness. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the movie has renewed topicality as a depiction of blue collar frustrations.
It didn’t take long for that connection to come up on Friday at the Costa Rica International Film Festival, where Reichardt took the stage after a screening of “Certain Women” to discuss her filmography to a crowded room. The filmmaker is currently the subject of a complete career retrospective at the five-year-old festival.
“I’m sorry I don’t speak Spanish and I’m sorry about Trump,” Reichardt told the audience, which led to uneasy laughter. “The second one is not my fault.”
If anything, Reichardt’s films anticipate the ire of an impoverished America that has dominated conversations surrounding Trump’s rise, and the unobtainable ideals dangled by his campaign. Without getting into specifics, Reichardt summed up the disillusionment haunting her characters in precise terms. “I think the original concept of the American dream was, ‘Your crop died this summer, my crop did well, so there’s enough carry both our families through,'” she said. “We’ve come a long way from that. The whole idea of the American dream just became so changed over time. In my films, the characters are in search of that.”
As an example, she cited the disgruntled worker in “Certain Women” played by Jared Harris, who loses his wits when he’s denied work after suffering an injury and has no legal recourse. “This is a person who got into his fifties and is aware, for the first time, that the system is unfair to him,” she said.
“Certain Women” hits on another contemporary problem in more explicit terms — sexism. Each of the film’s three chapters deal with women treated unfairly by their gender, even by the people closest to them. In the second chapter, Michelle Williams portrays the serious-minded owner of a construction company, who copes with her arrogant husband (James Le Gros) and their rebellious teen daughter. “I had a little screening for like five men, and they were like, ‘She’s such a bitch, what are we supposed to like about her?'” Reichardt said. “Then I had a screening for like five women and they were like, ‘He’s such a creep.'”
Reichardt adapted the film from a series of short stories by Maile Meloy, and kept each chapter discrete. While there are hints that the individual chapters exist in a single world, the stories never explicitly overlap. However, Reichardt admitted that she initially wrote the film with such devices in mind before changing her strategy. “It felt too contrived, in a way, like I was forcing the story to have connections that weren’t really there,” she said. “I like to elaborate more than condense.”
Reichardt’s films contain unique rhythms that emphasize lengthy pauses in conversations and telling glances. She explained that much of her filmmaking finds her departing from her scripts. “I always do the assembly as I planned it, then throw it away to make the film,” she said. The one exception was “Night Moves,” the 2013 eco-thriller starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as radical environmentalists who blow up a dam. Because the film used more traditional genre tropes, Reichardt had to follow a steadier path when constructing the narrative. “It was easier, to some degree, because it felt like it would work if you didn’t totally screw it up,” she said. “With the other films, they may or may not work.”