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Highway Hypnosis: Lily Gladstone and Duration in Certain Women


As we creep into Oscar season, nomination campaigns start to arise. Interviews, press junkets, podcast and talk-show appearances, and photo-ops all begin to infiltrate our feeds. The campaigns for the major categories are much more evident—especially for the acting categories.

I’ve had my eye on one particular campaign over the last year—Lily Gladstone.

Like most of the movie-going world, I fell in love with Gladstone in Certain Women, the Kelly Reichardt vehicle that skyrocketed the Blackfoot actor to critical acclaim. Gladstone’s turn in Scorsese’s behemoth, Killers of the Flower Moon, is earning her well-deserved praise, and a sure Oscar nomination. Variety even predicts Gladstone to win.

In an interview with Reichardt, Gladstone discussed her experience working on the Killers of the Flower Moon and developing the character of Mollie, a commanding Osage woman who falls in turbulent love with Ernest Burkhart (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). When asked how the opportunity to audition first came to her, Gladstone responded, “I think Marty watched Certain Women, Kelly.”

As Gladstone continues to rake in the awards for this latest work, I wanted to reminisce about what endeared her to us in the first place. So, I took a proverbial drive, not down memory lane, but from Belfry, Montana to the town of Livingston.

Set in Montana, Certain Women gives the viewer time and space to identify with and attach themselves to its characters. The film, like most of Reichardt’s work, depends on duration—long takes, extended silence, music without time signatures, all contribute to the atmospheric vibes of her films. In conjunction with powerful actors, such as Gladstone, these formal elements create exceedingly emotional experiences, even though it appears as though nothing happens.


SPOILERS AHEAD for Certain Women

Gladstone’s ability to communicate non-verbally makes her especially suited for a Kelly Reichardt movie. We first meet the Rancher (Gladstone’s unnamed character) in a barn. We observe her booted feet shifting weight back and forth on a hay-covered stable floor. Delicately posed horse legs communicate the animal’s comfort with its caretaker (Fig. 1).

From an anonymous distance, we watch the Rancher perform her morning duties, hardly catching a glimpse of her face (Fig. 2). She finally exits the barn and walks towards the camera; just as she gets close enough to see her face, the framing cuts her off at the shoulders. This intentional framing subverts an historically misogynist art technique that dissects women’s bodies, often severing their heads and limbs in favor of showing patriarchally desired body parts.

Figure 1
Figure 2

Here, however, Reichardt’s framing playfully teases us and our fascination with this mysterious figure. We finally get to see her face, drowsily lounging in her bed watching some vintage Space documentary with her dinner plate resting on her chest.

This delayed character introduction establishes a strong sense of place and being. We deeply understand where this character comes from, her dutiful work-ethic, and her solitary way of life. Up to this point, Gladstone serves as a body, carrying out anonymous work that could have been done by anyone. But once we see her face, the camera lingers—extended long-takes, close-ups on Gladstone’s face allow her to flaunt her restrained power as an actor.

While the Rancher lives an active life, full of duty and performance, the images that define Gladstone’s performance show her seated and observant; in the back of a dimly lit classroom, smiling coyly across from Kristen Stewart at the diner, but most of all, at the wheel of her rusty Chevy pick-up.

Driving is a major theme in this story. The young Montana lawyer, Elizabeth (played by Kristen Stewart), drives several hours each way from Livingston to Belfry to teach night classes.

Overworked and overstressed, she complains to the Rancher at a diner each week after class. The Rancher provides Elizabeth with a soft, welcoming ear to vent her worries and complaints. The Rancher asks questions, and the camera lingers as she listens. We glimpse her soft smiles as Elizabeth opens up. The delayed shot-reverse shot technique lets us in on the Rancher’s budding crush on Elizabeth; through her blushes and smiles we feel her awkwardness, her desperation to be loved, and her pure delight in another young person’s company in the old, cold town of Belfry. Every week, the Rancher watches Elizabeth’s taillights drive off into the dark Montana night, living only for the next week’s class.

On the third week, the Rancher rides her horse into town. Feeling courageous enough to show herself to the young lawyer, and making a small romantic gesture, she takes Elizabeth on a frigid night-ride to their weekly diner date. Elizabeth is hesitant, but we are unable to tell if this is due to the cold or to the amorous undertones.

However, Elizabeth’s reticence to reciprocate any romantic feelings keeps the Rancher (and the viewer) on edge. The Rancher’s fantasies run as wild; hope and fear coexist. It epitomizes the suspense of queer courtship—unsure whether making the first move will bring harm or open the door to love. And though Kristen Stewart’s face is most prominent on the film’s poster, this portion of Certain Women is centered on Gladstone’s character, and hinges on her subtly affecting performance.

Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone in Certain Women (2016)

We spend a lot of time with the Rancher as she drives. Durational shots pointed at her face as she travels to and from night classes occupy a great deal of screentime. We don’t get any overt emotionality, however. What we get is time: time to hope, time to reflect, and time to project. One night, the Rancher shows up to class, as usual. Expectant and childlike. When a new teacher walks in, informing the class of Elizabeth’s departure, the Rancher leaves straightaway to seek her out. She drives through the night to Livingston, trekking the same treacherous drive that Elizabeth complained so much about. In the morning, after sleeping in the cab of her truck, she pesters nearby law offices trying to reach Elizabeth. After much ado, she finally gets an address. 

Figure 3

Driving to the Livingston Business Offices, we get a long take of the Rancher’s face as she musters up courage and reflects on her doubts. She takes a deep breath and sighs as she pulls into a parking lot. Her eyes scan the lot, but not just for practicality’s sake—there is an anxiety behind her eyes, and resolution too. She’s at the point of no return, taking the big leap; will her interest be requited or were all these hopeful weeks for naught? She parks and waits, fixes her hair in the rear-view mirror (Fig. 3). Reichardt’s lingering camera and Gladstone’s delicately crafted performance imbue this cute, human moment with weighty expectation. As she stares at herself longingly in the mirror, a familiar blue car passes behind, and pulls into the parking lot.

The Rancher takes one last breath and gets out of her car. She and Elizabeth talk about the drive. Only a few words are shared between them, but the tragic beauty lies in what remains unspoken.

“I just knew if I didn’t start driving, I’d never see you again,” the Rancher confesses, bracing for the unknown.

Elizabeth only stares. Her stone-faced, perplexed expression says all the Rancher needs to know.

“Well,” the Rancher starts again, with a crack in her voice and tears in her eyes, “gotta go feed now. The animals will be wondering where I’m at.” She turns away, walks back to her truck, and pulls away. As she leaves, she watches Elizabeth through the building’s glass door—not even a look. Elizabeth’s life remains totally unaffected. 

 And the film gives the spectator time to get lost in it, lulled into emotion through a sort of highway hypnosis. 

Figure 4

And then, the greatest, saddest gift that Certain Women has to offer. For more than a minute and a half, we watch the Rancher’s face as she leaves Livingston (Fig 4). She drives, breathes, sucks her lips, but never cries. We feel her embarrassment, her heartache, her cowgirl stoicism doing all it can not to erupt into pieces. Gladstone’s power lies in her ability to convey powerful emotion through subtlety. And the film gives the spectator time to get lost in it, lulled into emotion through a sort of highway hypnosis. 

Gladstone continues to prove herself a powerhouse at delivering emotionally taxing performances with acute subtlety. In Killers of the Flower Moon, she conveys the grandeur and humility of Mollie, the exploited woman who spends most of the film sick in bed. While her role in Killers does not offer her as much to work with, necessarily, it comes as an exuberant outlet for Gladstone to tote her talent across our screens. While the Burkardt love story comes with many issues, Mollie frequently looks at the meager Ernest with deep love and compassion. Her stiff demeanor comes off as wariness, rightfully so. But there are moments of vulnerability in Mollie’s story that, if given more screen time, would have escalated the movie to deeper emotional heights. She is largely inactive throughout the film, and although it depicts a great misdeed to the Osage–Mollie, as a character, is left to the devices of those around her. 

Certain Women gives the Rancher immense agency–all that happens in the narration is because of the Rancher’s courage and desire to act. What remains after all this, is the fact that Lily Gladstone can take active roles, or passive roles, and with her gentle strength, she stays in our minds for a long time after the screen goes dark. 

During her recent conversation with Reichardt about Killers, the director reticently expressed pride in Gladstone’s success. The actress responded gracefully, “I understand the hesitance to say you’re proud of somebody, but it means a lot that you feel that. And of course, you had so much to do with this. There are not many people who can create a character that gives an actor like me a chance to show what I can do. And that was what Marty needed.”

The time we spend on the Rancher’s face allows us to get lost in her dreams. We mourn an entire lifetime of hope and potential, of love and companionship in the bleak emptiness of the Montana countryside.


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