The opening image of director Kelly Reichardt’s new film is mountains looming over the barren landscape of Montana and then the sound and light of a train enters frame to slowly take command of the screen. It signals an entrance, or rather, an intrusion into a quiet and forgotten world.
Certain Women is about observing the most intimate, and insignificantly significant moments in the mundane everyday. The audience is an intruding voyeur as Reichardt shows us a window into three lonely and belittled Montana women’s lives that aren't seen or heard by anyone else.
In the first tale we’re observers to a legal case as Laura (Laura Dern!), a lawyer, deals with a construction worker client (Jared Harris) who is unable to pursue an injury claim because of a technicality. The exhaustion of the situation leads to violence, but Reichardt’s handling of it is calm, detached, and most of all, sad. It approaches becoming high stakes genre-y, with a familiar story (little guy beaten down by big corporation) and feels a tad out of place amidst the latter two more quaint and original stories, but Dern/Harris’ commitment to the situation allows the anger and injustice to cut through.
Turn the page and we're with Gina (Michelle Williams), a woman worn out by her husband and teen daughter’s disparaging attitude towards her. She and her husband meet with Albert, an older man, to try to get him to give up his prized sandstone, which was once a school. Gina hopes to use the crumbled remains to build her family an authentic cottage, but this idealized image of a home is a veiled metaphor for her desire to construct a classic nuclear family. This tale is the shortest and simplest of the three, but also the densest. Her dream comes at a price as the guilt of taking the sandstone from Albert builds another wall between she and her family.
The first two stories are compelling with restrained and dimensional performances, but newcomer Lily Gladstone’s chapter is the film's crescendo, the one where it all works magnificently. Gladstone is a young nameless rancher (suggesting a randomness to the character’s selection) taking care of the animals and land for the winter. She takes a liking to a young teacher, Beth (Kristen Stewart), at a local adult law class. The two enjoy each other's company after each class at a diner, but when Beth quits her job the young rancher's search for connection turns tragic. This tale is in a word: devastating. If the first two are bittersweet slices of life, the third is a full course meal serving up platters of emotion.
None of the stories are traditionally dramatic with big decisions or closure. Those don't exist here, and I'm betting they don't in your life either. This America is one that watched the rest of the world sail into the 21st century. Lives intersect with a crestfallen inevitability that they’ll drift away, gone forever.
Stares are lost amidst landscapes like the unreciprocated love of the characters. The unrelenting cold and snow visualizes the harshness of nurturing human connection in such a place. The environment is perhaps the films connective symbol, towering over and almost intervening in their lives; a god like presence observing at a cold distance, but speaking in silence. The wind's whistles and nature’s faint echoes make up the rural soundscape. Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt capture the endless woods, golden brown wheat, and snowy rural towns on 16mm.
Review by Andy Zachariason
Certain Women. USA 2016. Directed by Kelly Reichardt. Starring Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, Kristen Stewart...
Out in the USA on limited release. Out in the UK on the 3rd of March 17