2016. Directed by Kelly Reichardt.
Cautious. Intimate. Entrancing.
Kelly Reichardt’s loose triptych of Montana women is one of 2016’s most resonant films. Using three vignettes to distill the American female identity, Certain Women is an immaculately constructed poetic vision. Featuring lush visual compositions and potently restrained performances, this is an unflinching dissection of everyday life from the feminine perspective.
Laura is an attorney who is in a sexual relationship with a married man. Her current case involves a disgruntled worker who refuses to heed her advice, and seemingly submits to the same encouragement from a male colleague. Gina is a married woman who, along with her husband, attempts to purchase a pile of sandstone from an elderly man who pretends that she does not exist. Jamie is a lonely ranch hand who enrolls in an educational law class. She befriends Beth, the attorney teaching the class and goes to great lengths to find a connection, despite Beth expressing her disdain for the trip she has to make to teach the class. All three stories are lightly interwoven to deliver a devastatingly quiet premise on the human condition.
Reichardt adapted her script from stories by Maile Meloy. The dialogue is simplistic and pointed, but never pretentious. There is no mystery to unravel or hidden meaning to uncover. This is life on display, and Reichardt’s steady hand delivers a thoughtful slice of Americana that evokes Ozu’s glacial sentimentality throughout. Christopher Blauvelt’s rustic cinematography harmonizes perfectly with the somber atmosphere, capturing the Montana landscapes with a laconic sense of observation. The world of Certain Women is remarkably beautiful, but also shackled by a sense of longing that is purveyed in virtually every scene.
Lily Gladstone as Jaime is the standout. Her ability to communicate unrelenting loneliness with virtually no dialogue is a triumph that cannot be overstated. Her scenes with Kristen Stewart, who does an excellent job with a minimal role, are the heart of the film. Despite the events being uncertain, Gladstone denies the viewer any chance to pity her character, persevering through heartbreak by mechanically returning to her daily routine, signifying the film’s core inspection of everyday life. The lack of overt drama may be off putting, even boring to many, but the payoff is in between the exchanges, with needy stares and knowing smiles filling the small universe of these women with an uncommon sense of realism that is too often lacking in the box office experience.
Laura Dern, Jarred Harris, and long time Reichardt collaborator Michelle Williams round out the cast. Dern and Harris’s chemistry, in what is arguably the film’s greatest exchange, is a masterful display of two lost souls warily treading through an emotional minefield. The two actors put everything into this scene and despite its ferocity, the fact that it remains in tune with the film’s hushed ambiance is a credit to their talent. Michelle Williams has the least amount of screen time, but she does wonders with what time she has. Her portrayal of a married women in a man’s world is thoughtfully accepting, broadcasting an aura of submissive ignorance under which lies a furnace of discontent that will never be ignited, for to do so would undo the social harmony that has become the expectation of a nuclear American family.