Director: Kelly Reichardt
Runtime: 107 minutes
A truck runs off of the road. Someone has an affair. A routine legal case escalates into a hostage situation. Characters from disparate stories cross paths. All of these occur in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, yet they’re hardly what lingers after an unhurried hour and 45 minutes. Instead, Reichardt, one of American indie cinema’s most reliable poets, draws attention to the breaths that take place in between words and actions. The small gestures take center stage, and what Reichardt pieces together, despite starting slow, builds to a series of gently moving conclusions.
Arriving two years after the more accessible eco-terrorist thriller Night Moves, Reichardt is back in more familiar territory with her latest. Adapted from the short stories of author Maile Meloy, Certain Women elegantly weaves together the lives of three different women, and those around them, as they do their best to stake their claim in the world.
Despite the vast emptiness of Montana setting, there are any number of obstacles, most of them in some way intangible. For Laura Wells (Laura Dern), it means dealing with men who either won’t listen to her, or who only enter her life when they need to use her. Laura’s client (Mad Men‘s Jared Harris) refuses to take her legal advice until he hears it from a male colleague, while the man in her life (James LeGros) only needs her as an escape from the tensions in his marriage. Elsewhere in the Treasure State, Gina (Michelle Williams) scouts for raw materials for a home she hopes to build. And lastly, Native American rancher Jamie (Lily Gladstone) strikes up a friendship (and possibly more) with a night school teacher (Kristen Stewart).
So much of what happens in Certain Women is mundane, but Reichardt manages to stealthily craft a delicate, sensitive tribute to the ordinariness of her character’s lives. Aided by beautiful, rough-hewn visuals, the writer, director, and editor paints an understatedly rugged portrait that hits home in surprising ways. Rather than force an “everyone is connected” overarching narrative, Reichardt is content to merely have her various characters brush shoulders at most. Each little reaction and movement counts, even if it seems inconsequential at first.
Even at their most accessible, Reichardt’s stories never move with urgency, and she doubles down on the approach here. But patience is rewarded once the Gladstone/Stewart part of the triptych guides the film into its second half and mini-finales. Carol director Todd Haynes is credited as a producer on the film, and that shines through most evidently in the third story. The inciting incident is almost random, but from the moment Stewart wanders into Gladstone’s line of sight, an inexplicable sliver of tension slips in. A few conversations later, juxtaposed with Jamie’s repetitive duties on the ranch, and the intensity of unrequited affection blossoms into something astoundingly realized.
The third segment could easily have been its own full feature, yet it never feels shortchanged by being forced to share time with two other stories. Yet by placing the most complete section at the end, Reichardt is able to construct a master arc encompassing three small stories that each have their own starts and finishes. The least developed of the three is Williams’ story, which feels more connective and symbolic, but nonetheless is still a worthy addition. Parts 1 and 3 focus on women dealing with situations and emotions they can’t completely control, while Williams’ Gina is her own boss (and likely the breadwinner of her household). These women are all distinct, yet they’re all cut from the same multi-textured cloth.
So much of what drives Certain Women rests on Reichardt and her behind the scenes team, but the women in front of the camera are equally vital. Even though we know precious little about these people, Dern, Williams, Gladstone, and Stewart are all constantly adding shades of depth without interfering with the reserved tone of the film around them. There are deep wells of desire, frustration, and exhaustion coursing through these women, all in ways that feel authentic and lived-in. Even when Reichardt flat out states a Talking Point in dialogue, she does so with elegance and brevity (“…if I were a man, people would listen and say, ‘ok.'”). The men aren’t too shabby either. LeGros brings gentleness to what could have been a detestable character, and Rene Auberjonois is quietly heartbreaking as an old man sought out by Gina. And, in his final scene, Harris brings unfathomable nuance to his part through only a handful of perfectly chosen words.
And while Dern, Williams, and Stewart all have the most name value, but it’s Gladstone who ends up shining brightest among the women. Her low key kindness seamlessly transitions into deeply felt moments of longing without missing beat. It’s star-making turn, only without all of the flashy theatrics that usually come with such a “moment” for a performer. Like the film around her, Gladstone’s performance is founded on introspection and empathy. While it may not jump off of the page as traditionally exciting or entertaining, those traits are what make Gladstone’s work, and Certain Women as a whole, such a tender triumph. And all without a single car crash or shootout in sight.