[Note: This is a re-post of my Certain Women review from the 2016 New York Film Festival. The film opens in limited release this weekend.]
Thank goodness for Kelly Reichardt. Having long built a career on doing quite a lot with very little, after twenty-two years, the filmmaker has managed to deliver what could be her most understated and emotionally involving yet. A narrative triptych surrounding four women; Certain Women, to be exact, whose emotional complexities and unbreakable courage make Reichardt’s latest an unmistakably thoughtful and singular exploration of the female experience.
Based on a series of short stories by author Maile Meloy, Reichardt goes distinctly literary in her adaptation, not concerning herself too deeply with connecting the stories of the four women beyond surface level crossovers. The quartet is played by Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams (on her third, astonishing collaboration with Reichardt, following Wendy & Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff) and newcomer Lily Gladstone, a name no doubt bound for stardom. Initially titled Livingston after the small Montana town in which most of the stories unfold, Certain Women’s sense of place is unshakable from the film’s very opening shot. Reichardt creates a world that’s both brutally cold and achingly empty, as a train rumbles down tracks in the middle of the Montana wilderness, its call echoing throughout the vast landscape.
We first meet Laura (Dern), a put-upon lawyer whose most recent charge, Fuller (Jared Harris), is slowly becoming the client from hell. Increasingly verbally violent and blatantly disrespectful of her opinions, Laura becomes drawn further into his convoluted, and ultimately abortive mission for justice thanks to some skillful exploitation of her affable, friendly acquiescence. But if this set-up sounds humorless, I can assure you, it’s not. The same light carriage that Dern is famous for is still present here, and she and Harris mine more than a few laughs from a later scenario involving a hostage standoff that’s as scary as it is wholly absurd. Even when at odds, it’s a thrill to watch the two of them spar, and Reichardt is sure to include a final tag that helps round out her characteristically warm approach to the pair.
Michelle Williams kicks off the second chapter as a mother whose inherited identity of disciplinarian leaves her on an emotional island partially of her own construction, sneaking away from her husband on a “morning run” to pilfer a lone, guaranteed pleasure – her daily cigarette – before facing the day. Strapped with a daughter whose teenage malaise has left her with little feeling toward either of her parents and a husband whose surface-level support is betrayed by casual infidelity, Gina (Williams) is a living embodiment of thanklessness, whose internal life, though not seen, is consistently undercut by the needs of those around her.
Certain Women is a pitch-perfect depiction of female reality, particularly as it relates to the intrusion of dismissive energy, than Reichardt manages to nail in the first two chapters. At one moment, after carefully coddling Fuller’s difficult disposition with saintlike patience, Laura notes to herself – ”If I were a man… it would be so restful.” In another, the otherwise sheepish Gina manages to speak up during a strangely tense business deal, only to be blatantly ignored by the much older man she’s attempting to negotiate with. Gina’s existential defeat reveals itself only in a tragic, hollow smile. But Reichardt isn’t so much interested in commenting on this intruding energy as she is in giving a comprehensive scope of those who experience it, the women who can be just as unpredictable and complex as those who underestimate them.
The third sequence introduces us to Jamie (Gladstone), a fresh-faced farmer whose solitary, monotonous life Reichardt manages to make gorgeous with the help of cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt. Up morning after morning in the crunching, winter cold to feed horses and tend pasture, Jamie lives a largely solitary existence punctuated by nights of television and microwaved food. But when Beth (Stewart), a recent law school grad with a crippling fear of failing, arrives in the remote Montana town after mistakenly taking a night school teaching job despite a four-hour commute, Jamie begins to thaw. Attending her classes at first out of boredom and then out of infatuation, Jamie slowly manages to bring Beth out of her shell. Their chemistry, which draws its power from its complete lack of consummation, is stingingly raw and gorgeous, as the pair of actors handily deliver the most emotionally affecting chapter of the film.
There’s plenty of philosophical meat to dig into in Certain Women, but it should be said that the film is also near-perfect aesthetically, with a spare, almost non-existent score and a visual palette defined by snow, yellowing grass, and a mountain of cable knit sweaters that make the film warm and inviting despite its winter setting. Imbuing icy mornings with unquestionable warmth and transforming a simple horse ride into a gallingly romantic gesture, Reichardt has spun another breathtaking ode to life, and to the female experience, with easy humor and most of all, tenderness, that makes the phrase “Certain Women” one of rarified honor.