Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, 2016) 4 out of 4 stars
Set in wintry Montana, Certain Women – the sixth full-length feature from Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff) – offers a narrative scope as majestic as the mountains we glimpse in the distance, with a focus as narrow as the limited opportunities available to its protagonists. Out of great specificity come universal truths (a favorite saying of mine, here and elsewhere). Three tales in one, the movie is both trilogy and triptych, each part building on the one before it while remaining on the periphery of our consciousness, never really leaving the frame. Filled with great performances and minimalist tales so nuanced we barely realize how much we have been moved until afterwards, Certain Women is that great cinematic achievement that lingers long in our imagination, merging with our dreams. Reichardt has always been a master of understatement, while never neglecting the conventions of storytelling, and here, as always, she writes enough plot details to keep us engaged with her characters, even if very little happens – externally, anyway – in two of the three segments. It’s all about the internal journey, however, and there the stakes are high and the emotional drama deeply affecting.
Based on the short stories of Montana native Maile Meloy (from 2003’s Half in Love and 2009’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It), the film follows four women over the course of its 105 minutes, each story beginning, without fanfare, while the previous one has barely ended. We’re often not even aware of the transition until we see a new face. First up is Laura (Laura Dern, Wild), a small-town lawyer whose personal-injury client takes matters into his own hands when he is dissatisfied with the results of her legal actions. Next, we meet Gina (Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz), a successful business owner, wife and mother with a seeming void at the center of her daily life. Finally, there’s Jamie (Lily Gladstone, Winter in the Blood) – whose name we never even hear – a young and lonely Native-American woman tending horses on a ranch who develops an infatuation for another young woman, Beth (Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria), a just-graduated lawyer who drives four hours from the city, twice a week, to teach a class on school law. With the exception of the first section, where the client, played by the versatile character actor Jared Harris (Pompeii), resorts to violent action to solve his problems, nothing much occurs, surface-wise, to change the lives of these women. They are mostly alienated from the world around them, relegated to supporting players in their own stories.
And yet, so much roils beneath the ostensibly tranquil visage of each main character. This is a movie, above all, about loneliness, as well as the particular challenges that women face as they seek personal agency, or even just some form of identity for themselves. Dern, Williams and Stewart are all phenomenal, but we’ve come to expect great things from them (the Twilight series, notwithstanding). It’s relative newcomer Gladstone who is the real find, however. Her Jamie is the saddest one of all, without friends, isolated from all but the animals she cares for (though the sight of the joyful Welsh Corgi who frolics in her wake would occasionally be enough company for me). She longs for a connection she can barely articulate, her inchoate desires a torture to behold. Reichardt, time and again, draws subtle attention to the quotidian mundanity of her life (and, to a lesser degree, that of the other women), with divided frames, off-center compositions, long-held close-ups, and a repetition of tasks in shot after shot. Slow as the pace of the film may be, it is never monotonous, for the interior dramas of these “certain” women are as gripping, if not more so, as the action in any broad-stroke three-act Hollywood film. It’s a beautiful and rewarding movie, and one of the best of the year.