Despite a hostage situation in the opening story (which, like 2014’s environmental activist drama Night Moves, brings Reichardt close to the dynamics of a thriller), nobody could accuse Certain Women of being overstuffed with narrative or incident. Yet each of these minimal portraits of Montana women lands with a cumulative force, which is softly amplified by the filmmaker’s usual restraint and precision. The effect is such that by the time we reach the climactic tale of loneliness and infatuation, the film’s gentle pulse has begun to feel very like a throbbing heartbeat.
Shot by her regular cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, on grainy 16mm that seems to have absorbed something of the crisp north-western night, Certain Women was edited by Reichardt herself, a task she’s assumed on each of her films since Old Joy (2006). “I originally started doing it because I couldn’t afford an editor,” she explains. “I never had any money after we’d shot.”
“At this point, I’d feel sorry for the editor that I’d hire. The idea of someone handing me the first assembly, without me going through it and having that privacy you have when you first come off a film…” This part, she says, is like the initial writing process: a chance to seclude herself with coffee and her own thoughts. “You have all this work going on with a lot of people, and then you’re back by yourself again, and you have time to plough through your footage and get to know it. It’s a hard thing to give up.”
Each of Reichardt’s great run of features since her early debut has been set and filmed in Oregon, so shooting in Montana represents an expansion of sorts (“I drive through it constantly as I go back and forth between New York and Oregon a couple of times a year. But when you start scouting around, you dig in in a much further-off-the-highway kind of way”). Yet reports are that for her next production, an adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s novel Undermajordomo Minor, she may shoot outside of the US.
This should prove a fascinating change for a director whose pictures are so embedded in American lives and landscape. Variety magazine has called her “the quietest of great American filmmakers”, yet there’s a background hum of politics audible throughout her work, and before we part I ask her if the ascent of Trump and the resurgence of the far-right in the US is likely to see her turning up the volume in her work.
“Trump is not having anything to do with how I make films,” she responds, aghast at the idea. “He’s not going to have that influence.”
She continues: “I don’t want to make films exactly for the moment I’m living in. It’s nice if they’re relative to the moment you live in. I just don’t want to be a super-reactionary, though it’s hard not to be reactionary to this moment. It’s hard to know what art should do right now. Maybe it’s the end of irony, because where can you go from here?”