Cast: Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Jared Harris, Lily Gladstone, James le Gros, Rene Auberjonois
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
As a successor to 2011's Meek's Cutoff, writer-director Kelly Reichardt's latest feature could be read as a treatise on the progress of capitalism upon the landscape of the American frontier. However, though much has changed in the century and a half since the setting of her muted wagon trail epic, Reichardt reveals that in many ways, the lives of women are still very much in the background; struggling against the tide of a patriarchal society.
Though not as bleak or unforgiving as Meek's Cutoff, Certain Women in it's own way carves a melancholic path as it tracks the everyday existences of a group of women trying to maintain a sense of normalcy. Reichardt's trademarks are all here--long pauses, awkward silences, languid pacing, an emphasis on behavior over narrative--and since she's incredibly empathetic to the human condition, the effect is like peering in on lives pushing against the tide of monotony. The greatest villains in her films are rarely the actual characters, but rather, a slowly encroaching feeling of emptiness which permeates nearly every frame.
Based on Maile Meloy's 2009 collection, Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, Certain Women hits on this particular kind of emptiness by breaking up three stories set in Montana, with minimal overlap between the vignettes. In the first episode, Laura Dern plays a lawyer with a client (Jared Harris) unraveling because he's getting screwed out of his worker's compensation. In the second, Michelle Williams and James Le Gros are parents hoping to acquire sandstone from an elderly homeowner (Rene Auberjonois) in order to build their dream house. The third segment involves a commuting lawyer (Kristen Stewart) teaching educational law who strikes up a bond with a lonely ranch hand (Lily Gladstone).
In all three parts, Reichardt hits on both the haunting despair as well as the beautiful stillness of the mountainous terrain; gorgeously shot in 16mm by regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, which informs the inner lives of the characters. Dialogue is sparse, and only in the first story is there anything even approaching typical dramatic genre, with Harris's panic-stricken client going to desperate measures in order to attain his own version of justice. Even here, though, the film inverts the usual thriller or suspense tropes by keying in on Dern's inability to communicate simply because she's a woman. Additionally, Williams's struggling wife and mother feels slighted by her husband for simply not being included in plans or auxiliary conversations regarding their future. In the final vignette, Gladstone's soft-spoken ranch hand is drawn to Stewart's similarly lonely teacher, but Reichardt deftly exposes the limitations of infatuation by drawing out their encounters with a mixture of warmth and social awkwardness. In terms of acting, all the women playing key roles here are excellent, but its newcomer Gladstone who quietly walks away with the film. In one beautiful long-shot, she relays vulnerability and heartbreak without a single line of dialogue. This would be considered a breakthrough performance if it wasn't so subtle.
Certain Women, like Gladstone's character, is also quiet and unassuming, but Reichardt continues to prove that feminist-leaning pictures do not need to be didactic. Her cinema is a world where ordinary women are dwarfed by cultural demands and necessities; a place where men aren't so much antagonists as they are ineffectual road blocks. Ultimately, the film may have been richer had it found another way to weave it's narrative rather than through the triptych format, especially since we are left wanting more from each character, particularly Dern's lawyer, who probably gets the least to do here. Still, the film lingers in a way warranting the same kind of hushed patience which obviously went into its making. It's a rarity in today's American film landscape; a movie made by women about women which doesn't cater to the confines of what that signifier implies.