Certain Women (2016) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for some language
Running Time: 107 min.
Cast: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Lily Gladstone, James LeGros, Rene Auberjonois, John Getz
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Screenplay: Kelly Reichardt (based on short stories by Maile Meloy)
Review published October 31, 2016
Written and directed by Kelly Reichardt (Night Moves, Meek's Cutoff), Certain Women offers three tangentially connected stories, inspired by three separate short works by Meile Meloy, delving deeply into the emotional lives of several women, tapping into their sense of loneliness and detachment in their lives, whether physically, emotionally, or psychologically. It's a finely nuanced work, running more on character and situations than it does on story arcs or plot, finding rich detail in what's not said over the inherently explained. Although the film contains three well-known stars, they're dressed down to so-called normal, both in looks as well as in the way they react to their everyday existences.
In the first of the three examinations set in rural Montana, Laura Dern (99 Homes, Wild) plays Laura Wells, a personal injury attorney with a thorny, tenacious client named Fuller (Harris, The Man from UNCLE), who has been out of work for eight months following an injury on the job that had been settled out of court, only for Fuller to suffer a more severe injury than he had though, making it nearly impossible to continue to work. Of course, he wants more money, and won't listen to Laura's claims that there's really little that he can do.
The second story involves Gina (Williams, Oz the Great and Powerful) a long-suffering wife and mother looking to obtain local material some sandstone to build a home lying on the property of elderly neighbor Albert (Auberjonois, Eulogy), who seems dismissive of her proposal, preferring to deal with the husband (LeGros, Vantage Point) who seems equally dismissive of her desires.
The third and story details a friendship that blossoms between Jamie (Gladstone, Winter in the Blood), a lonely ranch hand and Beth (Stewart, Cafe Society), a law school graduate teaching a school law course Jamie attends out of boredom. Finding feelings for Beth, Jamie continues to try to find a way to continue being in her presence during her twice-weekly long-distance trips, but the situation is awkward because neither person knows just what the other person is feeling about their continued connections.
Reichardt delivers one of her trademark restrained films about characters whose turmoil largely exists inside them, necessitating us to read their angst and anguish on their faces as they interact with others, or find moments of solace or apprehension when having a moment to themselves. If anything, Reichardt's strengths come from her ability to understand and develop her characters fully, making each one of them feel lived-in within the moment without the need for expository information to give each of them a backstory to understand where they are coming from. She is also a very patient filmmaker, letting takes roll out until something interesting happens, and even letting the film linger a few beats beyond in order for the mundaneness of the life in rural Montana during the cold of winter sinks into our psyches.
While two of the three actresses have received multiple Academy Award nominations, and Kristen Stewart has a Cesar Award to her credit for her phenomenal work in Clouds of Sils Maria, this is an acting showcase that doesn't have any typical Oscar highlight-reel worthy moments to spotlight. The actresses always stay as subdued and withdrawn as their characters are painted to be.
As terrific as the trio of famous actresses are, it's newcomer Lily Gladstone that delivers the most impactful performance as Jamie, the very lonely and awkward young woman who feels she finds a kindred spirit of a sort to invest all of her time and energy into, not knowing if she should make the leap and get an answer on whether those feelings are reciprocated, or whether she should just continue to let things play out naturally on the hope of a breakthrough. The choice between breakthrough or heartbreak runs through her mind until she is forced to act into a position of having to know for certain.
Beautifully shot with 16mm cameras by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt to give the film a detailed documentary texture and grain to showcase the drabness and greyness of the cold and desolate environs, Certain Women is a personal but bleak look into the lives of ordinary people who deal with issues that aren't often expressed in films, or within interpersonal conversations by real people out in the world. Reichardt is the master of giving a voice to those who don't know how to vocalize their feelings, or who don't have receptive audiences, showing for us all to peruse something distinctly human -- the need to feel listened to and connected with others.
Certain Women is an intimate work, so fine-tuned that many potential audiences may find their patience tested due to having to examine the intricate details of each portrait of disconnected people who feel marginalized and often invisible to the people who they wish could matter most. However, for those who prefer reflective pieces that hold up a magnifying glass to the lives of 'certain women' as a means to hold a mirror up to our own, it's a deeply resonant and satisfying work on the deep anxiety of being emotionally isolated from the rest of the world. In filmmaking, as Reichardt shows, patience can truly be a virtue.
©2016 Vince Leo