Those familiar with the previous work of writer/director Kelly Reichardt know she doesn’t care for over the top narrative arcs – her films are more expression and less explosion, either in Wendy and Lucy (2008) or the slightly fast-paced Night Moves (2013). Her latest film, Certain Women, based on the short stories by Maile Meloy, keeps up with her auteur themes, this time dwelling in the lives of three very different women united by one grandiose, oppressive landscape – rural Montana.
Lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) has her midday adulterous tryst interrupted by one of her clients, a stubborn man who refuses to follow her advice and ends dragging her into a hostage situation. Newcomer Gina (Michelle Williams) plans to build a house with her husband, and tries to convince an old, slightly demented family friend to give them the bricks that lay on his property. And isolated from the rest of the world, a horse rancher (Lily Gladstone) stumbles upon a night class taught by over-worked, out-of-town Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart), rapidly falling in love with her.
The three storylines, intertwined in the slow narrative pace, have tenuous plot contact points, but the real linking element is the situation of these three women – they are all strong, independent females who are stuck on a space that does not treat them kindly. Certain Women is mostly about micro-agressions – Dern’s and Williams’s stories certainly are, while the third and, in our opinion, strongest story deals with the problem of having feelings when there are no words that define them available to us. And as it’s easy to guess, the film’s major strength lies with the amazing performances from its actresses, all subtle and painfully real. Lily Gladstone, however, takes the crown, as she manages to convey a longing and platonic desire almost with no words.
And how refreshing is to see female characters that aren’t particularly heroic, extraordinary or even pretty. Their apparent plainness takes nothing away from their inner life, portrayed beautifully by the lens of cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt against the harsh scenery around them. These are real people, that have to deal every day with a society that refuses to accept them as rightfully participants, and instead of raising their arms against it, or conform, they just keep being. The slowness of the narrative also allows us an unusual proximity to them, as we are given the (rare) treat of being able to think about what we’re seeing while we’re seeing it.
Some people are fast to compare Reichardt to Wim Wenders, but the filmmaker that comes to mind after watching Certain Women is also one of its executive producers – if you like Todd Haynes and some of his earlier work (Safe springs to mind), you’ll certainly enjoy this film.
Certain Women will be in UK cinemas on 3rd March 2017