I still remember picking up Maile Meloy’s short story collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It at a bookstore and reading the first paragraph of the first story, “Travis, B.” It’s direct, quick to emphasize the place and time, a place where being matter-of-fact is a vital source of resilience:
Chet Moran grew up in Logan, Montana, at a time when kids weren’t supposed to get polio anymore. In Logan, they still did, and he had it before he was two. He recovered, but his right hip never fit in the socket, and his mother always thought he would die young.
This is direct, but there is so much subtlety, so much under the surface, which is fitting when you consider, again, that this is a person in a community where people say little, emote less, and yet of course have deep wells of longing, fear, and joy within them. Immediately I took the book to the cash register and paid for it. I’ve been a fan of Meloy’s short stories ever since. My particular favorites, though, have always been the ones about people passing their lives in the vast, often cold, open spaces of Meloy’s native Montana.
I cannot express how excited I was when Kelly Reichardt, also known for her studies of human subtlety, particularly in the open world of the western United States, adapted three Maile Meloy stories for her 2016 film Certain Women., which has just be released on home video from The Criterion Collection.
Certain Women is based on three Meloy stories: “Tome,” “Native Sandstone,” and, my favorite, “Travis, B.” Nicely, though, rather than play out in some kind of loosely structured ensemble drama (like Magnolia or Love, Actually), Certain Women is itself like a short film collection, each story playing out fully before the next begins. All are naturally connected by theme, by Montana, and by the focus on women characters, each at a different age, yet each experiencing disappointment, wondering when some dreams might come true. Reichardt’s opening perfectly showcases the very things that make each every one of these stories so strong: the open landscape, the chill, the approaching darkness, the small communities, the emptiness, the isolation within the broad expanse of time and space.
The first section stars Laura Dern as a small-town personal injury attorney named Laura. Though she’s been practicing for years and probably makes a comfortable living, she is still embattled. One of her clients is Fuller, played by Jared Harris, a man who was probably legitimately injured due to the negligence of his employer. He’s going to continue to suffer the consequences of this negligence for the remainder of his life, ensuring he will no longer be able to work as he once did. However, in an early attempt to get some compensation, Fuller has already signed a settlement agreement, precluding him from getting anything additional that may be fair. For months, as he has continued to struggle with his injuries and as his marriage falls apart, he has begged Laura to find some key to a better future.
Though sympathetic, she knows there is nothing she can do for Fuller. At this point, she’d really just like to get him off her back. When she finally takes him to another attorney — a male attorney — for a second opinion, and Fuller hears again what Laura feels she’s been saying for months, Fuller appears to be ready to accept his life is exactly as bad as he fears. Resentful that another client has listened to and accepted the situation when a male attorney says the same thing she does, Laura is nevertheless relieved she can finally be rid of Fuller. But her relief is premature. She is still going to have to deal with this needy albatross, with her own rather fragile illusions about her life, and with her hope that this genuinely destroyed man will take his troubles elsewhere.
The second story stars Michelle Williams as Gina. She and her husband are in the process of building a kind of dream home, and her goal is to use as much old, natural, fitting materials as she can. It turns out that Albert, one of the older members of the community, played by René Auberjonois, has a pile of native sandstone. It’s been sitting in his yard for years and years, and Gina would like it.
So, she and her husband Ryan, played by James Le Gros, visit Albert and find him only somewhat present. Perhaps his mind is slipping. Gina presses on the sandstone, trying to make it seem incidental to, rather than the object of, their visit, while Ryan continues to give Albert some “wiggle room,” telling the old man that he doesn’t need to sell it. For Albert, it becomes apparent, the sandstone means something, something he’s irrevocably lost with the passing years. Albert is a very lonely man, and Gina recognizes she is not there to provide comfort.
It’s a fascinating look at the pleasantries exchanged when people are trying to get what they want, even when they start to sense it might be somehow wrong. Like Laura, Gina feels embattled in her own life. She does not feel her husband supports her, and this goes for how he helps (or doesn’t) with her struggling relationship with their teenage daughter. I love this seemingly simple story about a woman’s attempt to set up an ideal home, while life is less than ideal.
For the next story, we go to the youngest two women: the recent law school graduate Elzabeth Travis, played by Kristen Stewart, and a younger woman known only as “the rancher,” played by Lily Gladstone. As strong as both of the preceding stories were, this is the one that makes this film a masterpiece. I’m predisposed to think this, though, since it is a beautiful adaptation of “Travis, B.,” which is not just my favorite Maile Meloy story but also one of my favorite short stories.
We first meet Gladstone’s rancher as she works on a quiet Montana ranch. In the evening, she goes in and watches some television on her own. Interestingly, she is playing the Chet Moran character, introduced in the passage at the top of this post. Reichardt has switched this character’s gender, and it works wonderfully. Just like Moran in the story, Gladstone is extremely lonely, so desperate for some connection she finds a school with a late night meeting and decides to go and sit in the back.
Kristen Stewart’s Beth has fallen into a very stupid situation. Looking for some money as she starts her legal career, she has signed up to teach a class on education law at this school; when she signed up, she didn’t realize that the school was on the other side of the very wide state of Montana. Every Tuesday and Thursday she must drive nine hours each way to teach this night class — thirty-six hours per week on the lonely, wintry roads of Montana.
After helping the famished and tired Beth find a local place for dinner on her first night, Gladstone’s rancher keeps coming to class, developing a one-sided crush on the woman whose life is actually taking place on the other side of the state.
These stories are sad but full of humanity. In their exploration of isolation, they show empathy and compassion. Reichardt allows the stories to move quietly, to breath in real space and time, and the landscape is a constant reminder of the beauty and melancholy of this expanse.
I highly recommend everything about this film and the stories that inspired it.