A woman here is solitary in her lived experiences. Yet her voice and body, her seemingly calm body language and diurnal patterns speak for the rest of the world. Solitary tracks, universal pangs- they become one in this moving tale that gives us a predictable layout of life spent in a coastal California town in the 1960s. That it was shot in the radical and politically active late ’70s, literally a decade apart from its date of setting, and still holds its emotional and personal weight for every discerning individual is a glowing testament to how storytelling is the greatest form of anarchy and rehabilitation.
It becomes obvious here that Jane Fonda is everywoman who’s bogged down by a lack of judicious agency and domesticity, receiving reprimand from her boorish husband for volunteering at the local veterans hospital while he’s out on duty. She’s also breaking out of her self-ordained social position. An army kid perhaps all her life, while the valour and national pride rested with the men, she learnt how to bask in the shadows. But true glory, even the penumbra of being a military wife hardly touched her. When she confesses here that she’s been on her own for the first time in her life, we immediately respond to the implicit backstory as well as the current scenario.
Perhaps it’s the cold, almost clinical misogyny endemic in army circles and present in perpetuity in the only man in her life ( Bruce Dern), a lack of commiseration or plain warmth, that draws her towards the embittered but wise, jolly and empathetic ex- armyman( Jon Voight); the latter especially becomes the voice of a social churning that looks at war as a man-made construct that subsumes misogyny, gender disparity and jingoism to achieve its ends. As a paraplegic receiving medical care and shelter in the very hospital where Sally works, Luke, along with other veterans now rendered specially abled but above all shattered in spirit and soul, calls out the propaganda machine for what it is. He is everyman too.
Both their coming of age is a second act, a point of attachment that finds the former high-school classmates beaming with warmth and commiseration that comes gradually. Their individual selves become universal.
This army code prescribing patriotism claims two siblings too, with one losing his will to live( Robert Carradine) while the sister Vi( Penelope Milford) does her best to settle in with the patterns she knows all too well. But both snap. Penelope is also a proud representative for all working, independent women who eventually allows Sally to be enlightened about her own choices. But without any direct gestural influence or making big bullet points on freedom.
COMING HOME lets these interrelationships come into their own, at their own pace, with the mighty Vietnam era acting as an ungainly unifier.
By the final act, the maturity in dealing with the effects of a man-made war that already soaks up every volatile temper and social inflammation finds an honest reckoning with ‘the real enemy’; fragile male egos and the ability to branch out of limitations imposed within any particular pecking order is presented. Jon Voight’s final speech to a hall packed with men old and young signals a liberating honesty that stands tall with every peacetime effort. With a soundtrack comprising of classic cuts by The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Steppenwolf et al, a cinematographic simplicity and a realistic rendition of gender relations vying for something beyond judgements and societal surveillance, COMING HOME humanises the manner in which we fall prey to and then can come out of the very patterns that mentally consume us.
There’s a moment here where Sally realises how much Luke means to her. The way this scene develops, the manner in which Ms. Fonda gets misty-eyed and then she and Mr. Voight design their current history of interpersonal intimacy is unforgettable. Hats off to Hal Ashby, the revered director whose debut THE LANDLORD(1970) rests in my eternal Hall of Fame. This here, too, is something special and life-affirming. The personal becomes organically political and vice versa through the deft strokes from Ashby and his team.
Kelly Reichardt- the storyteller whose genuine humane touch is perhaps as close to the elemental quality of mortal life in consonance with nature that shapes us- wins us over with her triad of tales in ‘Certain Women’
How I had yearned to watch it ever since being deeply moved by its trailer back in 2016. How wonderful to find it in the digital space and gather its serene charm that celebrates the lives of those who persevere even when finding real human connection is gruelling, especially given physical distances and sexist mindsets. The premise is centred on situations where women are ‘thrown under the bus’, as the expression goes.
In that context, Laura Dern is a lawyer dealing specifically with a man( Jared Harris) who’s emotionally battered, nurses a fragile ego, is suicidal and willing to use the gun to get his way. Exhaustion of a challenging job and dealing with an unstable individual shows in her tense looks and professional implosion. Mr. Harris is equally good as Dern here in dealing with a mental fallout that affects his health and future. We have empathy for both. But in the way that she is made to negotiate a hostage situation with her client, risking her life while male law enforcers think of it as just another procedure, Dern gets her final look of bewilderment at this casual approach and realisation about male hegemony right. Of course, she laments that had she been a man, her client would have believed in her line of reasoning and not insisted on having a second opinion with a male lawyer. The details here count. Some said, some left for observation.
Then we have Michelle Williams as a woman resented and given cold shoulder by her husband( James Le Gros) and teenage daughter. A camping trip ends without a trace of warmth for her from either and she’s almost begrudgingly labelled as a hard worker by the man. Turns out she’s a real-estate developer whose career choices are devalued by her husband. His position as not the boss is taken to be a great anamoly by an older man( Rene Auberjonois) whose property she wishes to redevelop soon. That lack of reaction to her friendly wave to the man at the end tells us everything we need to know about the state of ingrained misogyny. This cold state of affairs is countered by the warmth she genuinely exudes when interacting with him. A disarmingly charming moment is when both discuss about the birdcall in the area. There’s genuine warmth there. But human hubris is to blame for a premature end to mutual sense of bonhomie being developed here.
Yes the man sees her as an opportunist perhaps but it’s her gender that’s the real challenge to his set ways, the real plank that he places for ideas of ambition and business conducted with the opposite sex.
The third and final segment is, hands down, the most heartwarmingly beautiful and simultaneously heartbreaking. Lily Gladstone, currently finding global acclaim for Killers of the Flower Moon, shows her raw, delicately tuned naturalism as a rancher pining for a lawyer ( Kristen Stewart) conducting night classes on school law.
The diurnal repetition of her work at the ranch, her touch of grace and bonding with the animals there, and her interactions with the emotionally recessive Liz at the diner paints a quietly effective study of human behaviour and building a relationship with someone else. Ms. Kelly is empathetically tuned to her position of racial and social isolation too as a Native- American woman.
The cold shoulders received from middle-aged Caucasian attendees at the law class, her seat that she occupies at the very end row make up one end. Then in the manner that Liz opens up to her about her wearying job, blue-collar antecedents and the part about ‘shoes’ or shares a horse ride to the diner and back make a charming other half.
Layers of womanhood can be felt here, layers of friendship and bonhomie that never reach their potential breakthrough as the other one is just too distanced or maybe even apathetic. There are great sociological leanings and conditionings one can infer from this relationship where the sincerity invested is definitely one-sided. The final exchange attests to that with heartbreaking results, one of the most moving scenes put to modern film in my opinion. Gladstone does what silent cinema greats achieved- the internalisation and presence in any given moment without resorting to verbal communication. Kristen uses her awkward body language and repressed inner core beautifully.
Operating alongside the cold winter months and intimate, depopulated beauty of Montana, CERTAIN WOMEN brokers a need for human connection. But when it doesn’t come, one’s professional agency and self- determination has to prevail. This is where the storytelling here is so transcendental.
A teacher- student bond is one of the most endearing or fraught bonds comprising human society.
Director Erica Tremblay employs twelve minutes of screen time to present both aspects of that relationship with empathy and tact to spare. Offering a student a car ride to school. Scouting for basic supplies like soap and other toiletries at a casino/ hotel. Being deeply affected by a student playing on his own at recess. Minding a class of pre-teens and striving to broker faith with a troubled young boy who’s targeted at home by inadequate guardians and by the casual cruelty of classmates.
All these get problematised and hence become more poignant as the issue persists in a Native American location in Oklahoma. Economic hardships and personal, generational survey of being have-nots unite both teacher and student here. Lily Gladstone and Julian Ballantyne are pitch-perfect, mirroring two lives multiplied by centuries that still weather the storms of being at the farthest reaches of mainstream culture. Yet they are there for each other. That is the muted source of hope. It is beautifully realised here. Moreover on multiple viewings.
All above images are courtesy IMDB and Google.