In Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, the male characters include Fuller, who was injured on the job months before the movie begins. His long-suffering lawyer, Laura Wells, keeps telling him that he has no legal recourse against his employer, not beyond the settlement that he accepted. Fuller refuses to believe her. So Laura arranges for a male attorney to provide a second opinion, which turns out to be identical to hers. As they drive back from the meeting, Fuller says, “The only thing left to do is get a machine gun and kill everybody.” Laura pulls over and tells him to get out of her car. He apologizes to her. So Laura drives on. Fuller begins to sob. Laura keeps driving.
That night, Fuller takes a security guard hostage in the building where his case file is stored. The police summon Laura to the scene and send her in to talk with her client. He instructs her to read his file aloud to him. “You got screwed,” says the security guard, who has been listening closely. “Thank you,” says Fuller. He lets the guard go, and then asks Laura to help him with a ruse, designed to help him get away. She agrees, but as soon as she can, she shouts to the police, “He’s in the back.” And in a tone of exasperation: “He’s unarmed.”
The last time we see these two, Laura is visiting Fuller in prison. She’s brought him lunch from a burger place. Their manner with each other is like a woman and man still fond of one another long after a divorce. He asks her why she hasn’t replied to his letter. She says she didn’t know what to write. Anything, he responds. There’s not much to look forward to in prison. So it doesn’t have to be a tome. All right, says Laura.
The other women in Certain Women are like Laura: forward-looking, hardworking, resolute, indomitable. Quietly, steadily, each goes about the business of making a life for herself and, in the instance of the character played by Michelle Williams, her family, too.
I thought of those women the other day when I finished reading Richard Ford’s novel Canada (2012). It ends this way:
What I know is, you have a better chance in life — of surviving it — if you tolerate loss well; manage not to be a cynic through it all; to subordinate…, to keep proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly good is often not simple to find. We try, as my sister said. We try. All of us. We try.
The “I” here is an older man named Dell Parsons. He’s writing about dramatic events that took place decades earlier, when he was a teenager. First, his father robbed a bank. He needed to pay off a debt to some men with whom he had been running a scam. Dell’s mother was his accomplice. She went along with this insane scheme only because her husband had said he might take their son along. Dell’s parents were subsequently arrested and sent to prison. Then a friend of Dell’s mother, acting on her wishes, hid him from the authorities — his twin sister had run away — by driving him across the border into Saskatchewan. In Canada, Dell came under the power of his rescuer’s eccentric, menacing brother, Arthur Remlinger.
It was also the case (I couldn’t have formed these words then and knew them only in some uncreated part of myself) that Arthur Remlinger looked on me as he did on everyone — from an inner existence that was only his and bore almost no resemblance to mine. Mine simply wasn’t a fact to him. Whereas his existence was the most immediate and paid for — its primary quality being that it embodied an absence, one he was aware of and badly wanted to fill…. He encountered it over and over, to the the point that it was, in his view, the central problem of being himself.
Years later, after Remlinger did what Dell’s father had merely contemplated doing, namely, make him an accessory to crimes, Dell became an English teacher. He assigned his students books about crossing borders.
Along the way I tell them if not the facts, at least some of the lessons of my long life: that to encounter me now at age sixty-six is to be unable to imagine me at fifteen (which will be true of them); and not to hunt too hard for hidden or opposite meanings — even in the books they read — but to look as much as possible straight at the things they can see in broad daylight. In the process of articulating to yourself the things you see, you’ll always pretty well make sense and learn to accept the world.
On the one hand, certain women. On the other, uncertain men. Unpredictable, undecided, unreliable.
What is wrong with men?
Fuller, Dell’s father, Arthur Remlinger: these are people who refuse “to look as much as possible straight at the things they can see in broad daylight.” Each instead is preoccupied “with the central problem of being himself.” Accordingly, none “tolerate[s] loss well.” None “keep[s] proportion.” Whether obsessing over some absence or refusing to reconcile themselves to some presence, these are men who become ridiculous and pitiable, or cruel and monstrous.
For their part, the women prop them up. They bite their tongues. They smile with amusement. They clean up messes. They are willing to be anchors, ballast, mooring cables. More often than not, they are able to “connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good.”
What is wrong with men? Honestly, I don’t know. What I do know is that it is past time for us to figure that out.