Over the course of less than a decade, Michelle Williams went from no one’s favorite cast member on Dawson’s Creek to one of the most acclaimed actors of her generation. Since her dramatic 2005 breakthrough with Brokeback Mountain, Williams has received four Academy Award nominations, two Golden Globes, and one Emmy; given several credible musical performances; and briefly made out with Tom Hardy while possessed by Venom, among other accomplishments. Yet it’s hard to avoid just how often her roles could be described as another character’s wife.
That’s a reductive way of referring to her exemplary work in Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine, and Manchester By The Sea, to be sure. A more nuanced characterization of the common ground between these movies would be that they all feature Williams exploring the many dimensions of marriage, partnership, and grief. Yet as often as not, they still place Williams in roles that are secondary or, at best, equal to the film’s leading man. That’s not the case for her three films with writer-director Kelly Reichardt. In Wendy And Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), and Certain Women (2016), Williams’ characters have an autonomy that sets them apart from the rest of her filmography. This is true even when she plays unhappy spouses for Reichardt, as she does in both Certain Women and Meek’s Cutoff.
It’s not that Reichardt always specializes in the liberation of actresses from stock parts. Some of her movies, including Old Joy and the just-released First Cow, are detailed portraits of male friendship with few women in them at all, and in an interview about Certain Women on that film’s Criterion disc, Reichardt recalls feeling conflicted about the film’s title potentially pigeonholing it as a “women’s movie.” It’s more that her films are so intensely observational, so willing to prioritize behavior over plot, that nearly any leading performers will get an unusual amount of time to themselves. Williams, who so often shares onscreen space with intense, charismatic actors like Ryan Gosling or Heath Ledger, particularly benefits from the solitude.
This solitude often occurs against a distinctive environmental backdrop. Reichardt is fond of rural or semi-rural landscapes. The first shot of Williams in Wendy And Lucy introduces her character, Wendy, in a forested area, walking her dog, Lucy. In Meek’s Cutoff, the Oregon desert of 1845 looms over nearly every character and scene. And in Certain Women, Williams, who stars in the second of the film’s three interconnected short story adaptations, is first seen walking in the woods, her blue track suit and cigarette setting her off from the splendor of nature.
All three films draw the eye to Williams even when she appears in a long shot. Reichardt doesn’t trade in extreme close-ups, instead highlighting Williams’ face in other ways, like setting it against darkness for medium shots in both Wendy and Meek’s. She seems aware that her star can be read at a greater distance, and indeed, the expressive sadness of Williams’ face would make sense in an old-fashioned melodrama. She brings some of that vibe to movies as disparate as Brokeback Mountain and Greatest Showman; going all the way back to Dawson’s Creek, her storylines tended to be weepier, more serious affairs. (In retrospect, it was inevitable that she was the designated death for the soap’s finale, and perhaps surprising that no one pulled the trigger on killing poor Jen sooner.) Although she’s fully capable of playing comedy (see The Baxter or I Feel Pretty), she more often plays women in trouble or women troubled by men.
In this respect, Wendy And Lucy is the most typical Michelle Williams role of her three with Reichardt; she’s heartbreaking and heartbroken as a woman desperately trying to push her way through to a marginally better life as the bottom drops from under her. Still, it goes further than many of her bigger movies by isolating Williams—she spends a decent chunk of the movie wandering by herself, and the connections she makes with other people are tenuous at best and hostile at worst. If the default Michelle Williams mode tends to be exquisitely rendered woe, her lonely characters for Reichardt reveal the frustration and anger behind that sadness, and the internal struggle to keep those emotions at bay.
This is especially striking because the movies themselves don’t pulse with anger; Reichardt doesn’t try to get her audience’s blood boiling. When Williams does lose her temper in Wendy And Lucy, Reichardt keeps her distance. After her dog goes missing, Wendy searches frantically and bumps into the teenage grocery store employee whose insistence on following “store policy” resulted in Wendy’s brief arrest and Lucy’s disappearance. Understandably, she can’t stop herself from yelling at the kid, but her impotent hectoring as he climbs into his mom’s car and drives away is observed in a long shot, and offers no catharsis for her or the audience.
Emily, the Williams character from Meek’s Cutoff, is even more reserved. She does a lot of waiting and low-key glowering as the menfolk (including her husband) discuss their wagon train’s decreasingly attractive options, often talking around just how doomed they might be. At one point, when shifty guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) casually confronts Emily over her obvious seething dislike and gives her an opening to unload her frustration, she only offers that she has “no feelings one way or the other,” as a preamble to calmly explaining why she’s so pissed off. She barely looks up from her knitting, and Reichardt keeps her in a medium shot. Yet her feelings are clear—and maybe more piercing for staying just beneath the surface.
Wendy And Lucy goes in closer for two emotional scenes later in the movie: After a threatening encounter with a stranger in a park, Williams gasps and sobs in a bathroom; and at the wrenching end of the movie, she breaks down in tears. These are startling moments because Williams and Reichardt make it clear that the outbursts are about all Wendy can afford. Similarly, Emily has to stay relatively stoic and keep moving; instead of a big emotive scene, she finally acts on her feelings by picking up a gun and making a crucial decision when her husband is no longer able. Although their collaborations have plenty of striking images of Williams alone in the frame, Reichardt and Williams don’t rely on blocking out everyone or everything else to create a sense of isolation.
Certain Women, for example, is technically the Reichardt movie that isolates Williams the least. In Meek’s and Wendy, she’s on sparsely populated journeys that must press on through different forms of wilderness, even if she loses a traveling companion along the way. Gina, her character in Certain Women, spends some time out in the woods, but it’s a kind of tourism. She stays in a well-appointed family tent while visiting to scout out materials for the construction of some kind of rustic second home.
Gina isn’t facing the same kind of existential threat as Wendy or Emily, who sorely lack the basics of shelter that Gina takes for granted; Gina’s tent is nicer than Wendy’s anything. Her story might appear to lack traditional stakes, and Reichardt confesses during her Criterion interview that at first she didn’t completely understand the short story from which Gina’s plot is adapted, finding it slight until she came to see it as a “hinge” for the rest of her film. Yet its importance does come across on screen, in large part because of the tension Williams brings into her performance. Gina has a confident posture and a slightly frosty sense of decorum as she negotiates with a gently rambling old-timer for the purchase of a pile of sandstone, and neither of those qualities can fully obscure her impatience and dissatisfaction. She’s trying so hard to relate normally to other people, and no one in her orbit is cooperating: not her sullen teenage daughter, not her distracted husband, not the friendly but evasive old man who seems ambivalent about selling his unused rocks. In one stunning shot, Reichardt frames her through a car window, a recurring visual motif in the film. As reflections of the passing landscape move across her face, Gina looks positively ghostly. She’s not alone in the frame, and the other actors are giving good performances too, but the loneliness is palpable nonetheless.
These are mostly small moments, to be sure. Nothing Williams does in any of Reichardt’s movies is as plainly gutting as, say, her big scene in Manchester By The Sea, which came out within weeks of Certain Women in 2016. It’s easy to see why the former got her an Oscar nomination; not only is it a great performance in a great movie, but Williams also has a big, clippable, devastating moment to play where she confronts her ex-husband about the shared tragedy in their past. Yet while only Wendy And Lucy has a scene even remotely comparable, the fact that Williams can play scenes like that feels crucial to her work with Reichardt. An actor less suited to powerhouse displays of open-nerved emotion might well get lost in Reichardt’s quietude. Look at the filmmaker’s earlier feature Old Joy, in which two semi-estranged friends reconnect for an overnight camping trip. The two main performances are skillful, suggesting anguish beneath their pleasantries. They’re also, by design, limited in their emotional range and subservient to the movie’s extremely low-key approach. In its less engaging moments, this starts to feels as much like an affect as any overacting.
Williams doesn’t overact, in these movies or in general. But while she’s not prone to movie-star showiness, she does have a star’s ability to raise the emotional temperature of a movie just by showing up and looking like she could explode or crumple, wearing that potential on her face. This leads to moments that are more “acted” than anything in Old Joy, but have their own delicate beauty. Toward the end of her Certain Women segment, Williams’ Gina makes small talk with the old man selling her the sandstone. He points out a birdcall that he’s always thought sounded like the rhythms of a human asking, “How are you? How are you?” Gina trills back a response: “I’m just fine, I’m just fine.” She’s not, of course, but Williams makes this insistent front of politeness feel paradoxically unguarded, at least for a moment—a light, ingratiating suggestion of a breakdown that never arrives. In her movies with Reichardt, the averaging of the actor’s emoting and her director’s subtlety works out damn near perfectly. They create women who are quiet and determined, with a soap opera roiling underneath.