Certain Women is a breath of fresh air. It’s the perfect antidote to the sensory overload that can become agitated after seeing too many loud blockbusters. While those blockbusters can be a hell of a lot of fun, it’s best to heed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous advice: “Moderation in all things.” The Transcendentalist thinker seems to be a kindred spirit to the movie’s director, Kelly Reichardt, because of his belief that the divine could be understood by having a close relationship to nature. The stillness of Certain Women works like meditation. The stunningly gorgeous backdrop of the movie’s setting, Montana, often occupies the edges of Reichardt’s frame. There’s a connection to the land that her characters feel, even if it’s only subconscious. Told in three interconnected vignettes, the stories of four women, and how they move through a world that can be, if not outright hostile then aggressively dismissive of their very existence, represent the best in modern independent filmmaking.
The first of the three stories tells the tale of lawyer Laura Wells, played by Laura Dern. Wells is beleaguered by her client, Mr. Fuller, who refuses to believe her when she tells him he has no case against his former employer after a workplace injury left him with chronic double vision and fainting spells. Wells takes Fuller to see a colleague for a second opinion, and she is left incredulous when the injured man immediately accepts the male lawyer’s opinion of the case. It is, after all, the exact same as hers. Dern is cleverly subtle in evincing her frustration at telling Fuller the same thing for months, only to have him believe the exact same news when it comes from a man.
British actor Jared Harris delivers an impeccable American accent as Fuller. His anguish and fury at being out of work, with no hope of monetary compensation after the accident, is understated but palpable. This is primarily a movie about the frustrations women face, especially in professional roles, but Reichardt doesn’t neglect Fuller’s very painful situation. At the same time, Reichardt makes room for moments of levity, such as when Wells is forced into the role of impromptu hostage negotiator in the climax of her story.
The middle section of Certain Women concerns Gina, portrayed by Michelle Williams, who is building a dream house with her husband, Ryan, played by James Le Gros. While they work on the house – which is in the middle of the breathtaking Montana wilderness – they live in a tent with their daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier), and commute back to a house in town for work. Gina is determined to get a huge cache of sandstone from her soon-to-be neighbor Albert’s property, so the couple visit Albert to persuade him to give them the rocks.
Reichardt uses this sequence as a rumination on the loneliness of life in small town America. Rene Auberjonois plays Albert as an isolated old man who might or might not be suffering from the early stages of dementia. The only clue we’re given that maybe he’s just an insensitive curmudgeon is that whenever Gina tries to ask about the sandstone, he either ignores her or changes the subject completely. He’s much more attentive to Ryan, who dimwittedly sabotages Gina’s attempts by telling Albert there’s no harm in deciding to keep the sandstone. As clueless as Ryan is, though, he does reprimand their daughter during a bout of teenage obstinacy, saying that neither of them would do very well without Gina. That makes the brief appearance of Ryan in Laura Wells’ story in the first third of the movie all the more intriguing, but I won’t spoil that here.
The last story is perhaps the simplest, and the most melancholic of the trio. Relative newcomer Lily Gladstone plays Jamie, a quiet and lonely farmhand who takes care of her employer’s stable of horses. One night Jamie’s need for human connection overpowers her, and she drives into town. She sees people walking into what appears to be a middle or high school, and she decides to join them. Jamie discovers that she’s walked into a night class for teachers, one about the law as it applies to education.
The class is taught by Beth Travis – played by Kristen Stewart with impressive naturalism – a newly graduated lawyer who took the teaching job impulsively without realizing the commute was four hours long each way. Here, Reichardt uses more humor in the screenplay, which she adapted from a collection of short stories entitled Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy. Beth tries to impart knowledge concerning Supreme Court decisions about the teaching profession, but the educators are only interested in things like the legality of demanding reserved parking spaces at their school. Joke’s on the teachers, though, because Beth doesn’t actually know anything about education law. She’s just learning enough to be able to stay one step ahead of her students.
Jamie and Beth have dinner at a restaurant after each class, and the two strike up a friendship. Jamie slowly starts to fall for the lawyer, and she is crushed when a new teacher addresses the class at the next meeting. Beth couldn’t handle the long commute, he tells them, so he will be taking over. Jaime bravely decides to take the four hour drive herself, unable to live with never knowing if there is something more than just friendship between them. We again see Laura Wells, as Jamie tries to figure out which law firm Beth works for. Jamie’s need to seek out Beth is a testament to the power of human connection, while her wordless work on the farm belies the power of the connection to nature.
At one moment during the film, while Jamie is feeding the horses in her care, Reichardt’s camera observes the work from high above. The shot is angled sharply down, with the ground taking up most of the frame. At the very top are the majestic, triumphant mountains of Montana. Reichardt is acknowledging the power and beauty of the landscape, while keeping the focus on the people she is observing. They are inextricably linked to the land, but it’s the human drama of their lives that gives Certain Women its quiet, meditative strength.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Reichardt creates an almost magical atmosphere through her long takes and slow pacing. One effect of her technique is that I was left just a little bit cold by it, but that doesn't take much away from the overall power of Certain Women. It's a near transcendent experience.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Reichardt has a well established reputation for making the gorgeous nature in her movies as central to the story as her characters. She makes Montana look absolutely gorgeous (not hard to do, I'm sure) in Certain Women, so I'm anxious to look at her other films, which all focus on the Pacific Northwest. I'm late to discovering her work, but I'm eager to catch up.