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If you know anything about Kelly Reichardt‘s work, you might already know what to expect when watching her latest, an adaptation of three short stories by Maile Meloy. Her films are deeply-rooted character studies, patient, observant, sometimes disturbing, always compelling. With women at the heart of her work, she once again finds passion in her story-telling, even if they don’t meet with the expectation of modern action-heavy film styles.
It begins with Laura Wells (Laura Dern), an experienced lawyer who is trying to pacify a former client named Fuller (Jared Harris) who was injured on the job but settled early and believes he is entitled to more. She has exhausted all avenues and when she brings him to another lawyer for a second opinion, that lawyer agrees. Now Fuller, a once talented carpenter who can no longer work, breaks down in futility. It leads to a potentially deadly conflict.
The second story centers on Gina (Michelle Williams), a woman with a singular ambition in which to build a dream house of all native materials in an isolated plot by the water. Her husband (James Le Gros) is casual about it and their teenaged daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier) is typically resentful. Gina has her eyes on a tumble of sandstone block that were once the foundation of an old school house now sitting on the property of old man Albert (Rene Auberjonois), who has recently fallen and bumped his head but able to keep up. The real issue is the ever-present contempt.
Last is Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a seasonal worker at a horse ranch who lives in near winter total isolation. One late evening, she drives into the small nearby town and watches a few cars turn into a school. She follows them into a classroom where a handful of older adults (teachers) have assembled for a night class on school law. She takes her place in the back as a young teacher named Beth (Kristin Stewart) enters, a frail girl driving four hours each way to teach, a mistake she admits afterward when she and Jamie meet in a diner, a habit that continues for some time.
Certain Women is a film of limited dialogue, an exercise in the smaller observations of daily life that are parts of three women’s larger story. In many ways these stories are simply context for the routines as we linger on long purposeful shots that fill in the gaps between the words. These are weighted images of course that give a deeper sense of daily life and breadth to these people’s existence. From the manner in which Laura lies in bed while her lover tends to himself in the bathroom, to the silent indignation in a car ride with Gina, to the anticipatory hush of Lilly’s silhouette as she waits for Beth, all speak to the character of these women.
What’s interesting about Certain Women, and that of nearly all Reichardt’s films, is the palpable sense of desperation. Here, what that is to each is what makes their stories so strong. But don’t expect closure, or even actual endings, at least in the traditional sense. That’s not what this is about, nor tries to be. These are all talented actors, with screen veteran Dern again giving great conviction to her role and Williams, a steady in Reichardt’s films, solid though her story is the weakest. Stewart is also very good while her co-star, Gladstone is remarkable. It’s about the women, but it should be noted that Harris has never been better.
Some might better connect with the relatively more accessible story of the first part, but it is the last that has the most impact with a simply indescribable moment of agony as one character moves on from another. It’s one of the most traumatic moments I’ve seen at the movies this year.
Certain Women watches like reading a book with unfinished sentences, wanting you to find the endings. That in itself makes for a powerfully personal movie experience. There are no car chases, no gun fights, no fist-fights, nor sex. This is just a slice of life in a few days of four extraordinarily ordinary women. Don’t miss it.
Movie description: Certain Women is a 2016 drama telling the story of three women in Montana whose lives loosely connect. A quite, deeply affecting experience, it won't be for everyone, but is nonetheless a film to be seen.
Director(s): Kelly Reichardt
Actor(s): Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern