Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 47 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
Kelly Reichardt’s slice of life film focusing on four women living in or near the small village of Livingston, Montana.will not be for everyone. Ms. Reichardt’s filmmaking style, known to this reviewer only through Meek’s Cutoff, her spare film about a party of pioneer settlers lost in the Oregon desert, is more like that of European directors than those of Hollywood. There is as much silence as dialogue and music; the characters utter few words, and often pause before and after they do speak, their looks expressing as much as their words; her camera lingers on a scene long after a character leaves the frame; the wide-open sky and vast landscape with distant mountains in view enhance the feeling of loneliness that pervades the film; and there is very little happening, at least were you to compare this to a more conventional film.
The three vignettes unfold slowly, beginning with lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) getting dressed after a sexual tryst with Ryan (James LeGros), who is married to someone else. At work her disgruntled client, Fuller (Jared Harris) drops in unexpectedly. He is upset because he cannot get further compensation for a work injury. Laura patiently explains to him that when he accepted the small payment offered by the company, he forsook any further payment. He refuses to believe her, so she takes him to a male colleague who looks through his papers and tells him the same thing. Later at night Laura is called by the sheriff to don a bullet-proof vest and go in where Fuller, raging over his defeat, is holding hostage a security policeman in her office.
The second vignette centers on Gina (Williams), Ryan’s wife. The family, consisting of the two of them and their surly daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier), are out camping at the spot where they intend to build a vacation cottage. On their way home they stop for a visit with a friend, the elderly Albert (Rene Auberjonois). From their stopping first to look over a large stack of sand stone, we realize that this is no social call. Sure enough, they seek to buy the stones for their cottage. The old man, telling them that the stones were the remains of the old-school house, agrees, perhaps even to giving them away. From a remark that Ryan makes that goes counter to his wife’s we gather that there is tension between the couple—and we wonder if that cottage will ever be built.
In the third, and perhaps most poignant story of the three, Native American horse rancher (Lily Gladstone) goes about her chores of caring for her horses. I lost count of the times that we see her opening the stable door as she leads a horse to or out of its stall; riding her ATV to drop off three bales of hay for her horses out in a field; and performing other daily chores. She apparently lives and works all by herself. One night while out driving aimlessly around she spots some cars at the local school. Entering a classroom, she is told by the four others present, all of them teachers, that they are waiting for a lawyer to teach them about educational law. The just graduated law apprentice, Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart), shows up and passes out papers.
After class, the Horse Rancher (no name is given her in the cast list but this) shyly approaches Elizabeth and suggests that they pick up a meal at the local diner. However, it is obvious that the student is really seeking companionship, as she orders only a glass of water. The instructor apparently is uncomfortable with this because she leaves after eating just a few bites of the meal spread in front of her. From the few words exchanged we do learn that she drives four hours both ways from Livingston to reach the rural school, and that she was given the teaching assignment because she is the junior apprentice at the law firm. There are many more such diner sessions, in between which we see the Horse Rancher going through her chores in exactly the same way at the beginning and end of each day. Then comes the night when the instructor does not show up, one of the four teachers in the class reporting that he has been asked to finish out the lessons. Deeply longing to continue the relationship, the Horse Rancher drives through the night to Livingston. Sleeping the rest of the night in her pick-up truck, the next morning she visits several law firms trying to find where Elizabeth works. What follows is what makes this story so poignant—I am sure to recall this vignette for a long time to come.
The film ends with what amounts to a coda in which a few, but not all, loose ends are tied up, the most satisfying of which is the scene involving Laura visiting her former client Fuller, now a prisoner because of his hostage-taking.
Kelly Reichardt seems to want us to take more notice of the details of every day, ordinary life. Hers is the very opposite of fantasies like Doctor Strange that offer escape from real life. Face it, she seems to say, you are not extraordinary, and your life might be as vain as that described by Qohelet, “the Preacher” who wrote Ecclesiastes. And if you are a woman, you must be especially strong, for this is still “a man’s world” wherein you will not be taken seriously, as in Laura’s case; be hurt by a man unfaithful to his vows; or, like the Horse Rancher, be almost totally ignored because you are “different.” In a way, each of these women are outsiders (including the one not mentioned in the previous sentence, the apprentice lawyer unsure of herself, who probably never will become a member of the firm), much like the rejected ones embraced by the Carpenter from Nazareth. I wonder which of the ten Beatitudes of Christ (see Matthew 5) best fits these four? Perhaps the very first one, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” If only they could find a place or person where they hear and experience the good news of that promise.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Dec. 2016 issue of VP.