Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt
Release Year:
Kelly Reichardt (screenplay by), Maile Meloy (based on stories by)
Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Lily Gladstone.
Screening Date:
  • 24 Apr 2018
  • Categories:

    A portrait of independent women, this film drops us into a handful of intersecting lives across Montana. The real drama bleeds out of the nuanced performances from Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart, set against vast plains, snow-capped mountains, and weak men.

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    F-Rated Gold

    Film Notes

    Beyond a sliding stable door, a muted but ravishing Montana vista fills the frame with horizontal ribbons of snowy peaks, blue-grey ranges, frosted plains and weathered fencing. In front of it, a lone ranch hand drops off feed for horses, immersed in her daily tasks.

    Winding women’s quiet stories into north-western landscapes traditionally given over by film to men and their noisy Manifest Destiny is Kelly Reichardt’s speciality. But rather than the homeless roamers of Wendy and Lucy (2008) or Meek’s Cutoff (2010), the stoical, struggling heroines of this triptych of lightly linked narratives are rooted in town or ranch: lawyer Laura (Laura Dern) is dogged by her troublesome client Fuller, his hostage-taking dropping her directly into his revenge plans; businesswoman Gina (Michelle Williams) plots the perfect rural house to underpin her wavering marriage, seeking authentic local stones from an elderly neighbour; and a rancher (Lily Gladstone) gets a crush on night-school teacher Beth (Kristen Stewart), a frazzled rookie lawyer worn down by working two jobs.

    Around the four sharply observed character studies, the landscape lingers without pressing in, to be picked over by acquisitive Gina, worked on by the rancher or traversed by the exhausted Beth. Visible through every window and car journey, the Montana mountains preside over everything. Shot by long-time Reichardt collaborator Christopher Blauvelt in 16mm, giving grain and subtle texture to the film’s slate-and-beige palette, they have a painterly look that’s never overworked. There’s a hint of Milton Avery’s blocky landscapes about them, as Reichardt has acknowledged. Looming large, they add to the film’s discreet echoes of north-western history, successive inhabitants signalled by the costumed Native Americans dancing in the mall or Gina’s townie hunger for the original sandstone blocks that were once the frontier schoolhouse. A meticulous natural soundscape underlines all of this, its outdoor silences embroidered almost imperceptibly with river splashes, birdsong, wind in the trees and the distant hum of a car.

    Reichardt is a master minimalist whose style suits the short story form. Laura’s and the rancher’s tales in particular are delicate, pared-back miniatures that deliver both character and story skilfully. The three tales are taken from Maile Meloy’s collections Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It and Half in Love, nimbly feminised, and connected so lightly that they just brush past one another; it’s utterly unlike Altman or Crash’s heavily interwoven plots. But their short span, coupled with Reichardt’s austere storytelling, allows us less time to trace the links between character and setting.

    This only becomes an issue in Gina’s section, where the sliver of story and Williams’s deliciously tetchy and contained performance feel slightly ambiguous. Is this cheated-on wife simmering with suppressed rage? Or is she a selfish yuppie pushing others aside in pursuit of her ‘authentic’ Montana home? Or perhaps both at once. By contrast, Laura’s experience with Jared Harris’s despairing, life-swiped client is a beautifully sketched mix of frustration and sympathy, expressed in exasperated meetings and a slyly comic hostage standoff where the police cheerfully pitch Laura into danger.

    What the triptych structure nicely amplifies, however, are the women’s plights and their tiredness, as they struggle with debt or loneliness, unhappy marriage or male neediness. With minimalism as an organising principle, characterisation is pieced together from scant dialogue, worn-in clothes or fleeting expressions. Reichardt shoots her actresses’ faces with the same lingering attention that she gives to the landscape – Dern long-suffering and game, Williams pursed and irritable, and newcomer Gladstone shyly eating up a bone-weary Stewart with her eyes.

    This last story is the film’s best, a slender handful of scenes creating an emotionally engaging tale of infatuation, with Gladstone’s standout performance speaking volumes with a bitten lip or darting glance. It’s quite an achievement, in a film where the playing is uniformly excellent. Threaded through with the chores that the rancher undertakes daily (reminiscent of the fascination with the work of women pioneers in Meek’s Cutoff), it’s a pitch-perfect portrait of loneliness and longing. Gladstone and Stewart infuse their characters with an exquisite awkwardness, which melts only during a late-night horse ride, a rare tender moment.

    In all three stories, traditional ‘women’s film’ territory is traversed (infidelity, a disintegrating marriage, a near-miss love). But just as she made an innovative no-action western of Meek’s Cutoff, here Reichardt has created a ‘women’s film’ that never tips into melodrama. Her stories pierce the viewer without resorting to violence, marital showdowns or any kind of over-dramatic gesture. Spare but wide-ranging in its concerns, quietly played but emotionally powerful, Certain Women’s whispers are more penetrating than most film’s shouts.

    Kate Stables, Sight & Sound, 6 April 2017.

    With her sixth feature, Kelly Reichardt more than ever feels like a director who is using cinema in a way that is wonderfully at odds with our expectations for the medium. While mainstream cinema often feels like an assault, pinning us back in our seats, and her arthouse contemporaries tend to prefer showy gestures and directorial techniques that declaim themselves, Reichardt’s low-key, intimate films draw us in. Her work is subtle, deliberately anti-dramatic. Her approach goes beyond naturalism and lands somewhere between painful introversion and acute empathy. As such, Certain Women won’t appeal to everyone.

    But for those who connect with Reichardt’s approach – and I count myself among them – the film is a minor miracle. Based on the writing of Maile Meloy, it is loosely a triptych of stories in which nothing much happens, full of expressive moments in which nothing is said, but which somehow convey an ache of longing or a small stab of triumph. The tales don’t so much intersect as brush against each other. They unfold in the small-town American northwest and feature four women, who each, in their own way, have something of the unvarnished pioneer spirit that fascinated Reichardt in Meek’s Cutoff (2010).

    Laura Dern plays a lawyer wrestling with a troublesome client who seems to view her as an emotional crutch as well as a professional adviser. Michelle Williams, Reichardt’s regular collaborator, is a high-achieving wife and mother designing a weekend retreat in the hills who only subliminally realises the extent of the estrangement between her and the rest of her family. And the extraordinary Lily Gladstone plays a rancher, raised among boys and animals, who doesn’t fully understand what it is she feels when she blunders into a night school legal class and meets the browbeaten teacher, a crumpled, washed-out Kristen Stewart. It’s this final segment, with its melancholy rhythms and lovely, textured performances from Stewart and Gladstone, that elevates the film into the unassuming masterpiece that it is.

    Wendy Ide, The Observer, 5 March 2017.

    Though not technically a western, Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” takes place in a region of broad skies, rocky landscapes and pent-up feelings. Human beings are sparse, and words are even scarcer. But Ms. Reichardt, a transplanted Easterner based in Portland, Ore., is a poet of silences and open spaces, and her plain-looking, taciturn films have their own kind of eloquence, the specific gravity of rare minerals.

    Working from short stories by Maile Meloy, Ms. Reichardt has composed a splintered group portrait. The three women who, in turn, occupy the center of the screen are loosely connected to one another. They live in the same town, and one of them is having an affair with another’s husband. This adultery is peripheral to the main drama, which is more oblique, and turns on frustrations and failures of communication that are all the more painful for being almost impossible to describe.

    Laura Wells (Laura Dern), a lawyer, contends with a difficult client (Jared Harris), a man whose profound unhappiness with the way things are threatens to erupt into violence. He’s pathetic but also frightening, and Laura tries to keep a safe, professional distance while holding onto her empathy for him, an effort that produces both a note of tension and a deep chord of melancholy.

    Tension and unacknowledged sorrow also define Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams), who is building a house in the countryside with her husband (James Le Gros) and daughter (Sara Rodier), who she sometimes feels are allied in a silent conspiracy against her. Their family disharmony is underscored — but also, somehow, potentially resolved — when they purchase a pile of old stones from an ancient rancher. Those rocks are at once symbols of transience and of permanence. They lend themselves to solid structures that are nonetheless fated to fall down.

    In all of Ms. Reichardt’s films — from “River of Grass” and “Old Joy,” through “Wendy and Lucy,” “Meek’s Cutoff” and “Night Movies” — the human presence feels fragile and contingent. And the stories of Laura and Gina, while interesting, deftly told and meticulously acted, also feel a little thin, more like anecdotes plucked from the stream of everyday life than like episodes of illumination. The third panel of this triptych is something else, though: a quiet, perfect vignette through which silent passion surges like an underground stream.

    In it, Kristen Stewart plays Beth Travis, a young lawyer teaching a night class at a rural school. Ostensibly on the topic of education law, something Beth admits she doesn’t know much about, the course is mainly an after-hours opportunity for teachers to complain about their jobs. Also in the room, for unclear reasons, is a young ranch hand named Jamie (Lily Gladstone), who finds herself smitten with the instructor, and who pursues her infatuation with nervous dedication.

    This love story — as full of longing as a great pop song, but without any overt statement of passion — is embedded in the hard routines of Western life: long drives, repetitive chores, endless cups of coffee. Ms. Stewart manages the remarkable feat of being at once convincingly mousy and unmistakably glamorous. With her stringy hair, stooped shoulders and anxious smile, Beth is a weary, self-effacing drone, except to Jamie, for whom she is a radiant queen. And Ms. Stewart, a tremendously disciplined actress, holds onto just enough of the magnetism that made her a movie star to allow us to see the character both ways, and to understand the ferocity of Jamie’s attraction to her.

    A. O. SCOTT, The New York Times, OCT. 13, 2016.

    What you thought about Certain Women

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    3 (5%) 10 (15%) 27 (42%) 14 (22%) 11 (17%)
    Total Number of Responses: 65
    Film Score (0-5): 2.69

    Collated Response Comments

    141 attended with 65 sharing their views on the film. A hit rate of 46%. The rating of 2.69 places it in the unenviable position of being the least popular film of the season displacing Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping!

    Prior to the screening of Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, I quoted from a review by Wendy Ide of The Observer that concluded with; “Her approach goes beyond naturalism and lands somewhere between painful introversion and acute empathy…. with its melancholy rhythms and lovely, textured performances, particularly from Stewart and Gladstone, which elevates the film into the unassuming masterpiece that it is." I asked whether you would agree that it is an unassuming masterpiece.

    You told us that it is not; one reviewer said it was “an interesting film, but its lack of cohesive narrative makes it feel like hard work (not helped by the very muddy sound which made the dialogue hard to follow). The absence of a recognisable plot as a driver does mean you are free to appreciate the excellent actors on show and the ebb and flow of their emotions and irritations. Possibly this also allows you to appreciate the naturalistic soundscape that seems to be foregrounded by the many spaces in dialogue: footsteps on a wet parking lot, the rumblings of an old pickup, it gives the film real authenticity, along with a landscape as stark as Laura Dern’s cheekbones. In the end the only vignette that really engaged me however was that of the luminous Lily Gladstone and weary Kristen Stewart which seems to come from a different place than the previous two”.

    Others commented that the film was “very slow moving but with stunning scenery as a backdrop to the tedium of some very mundane lives”. “Nice views of Montana; waited for a revelation but so boring, sound bad at times”. “Where to start – actually quite good at one level; her depiction of everyday life was outstanding. Sounds, scenery, level of detail, extraordinary use of light. Human emotions, vulnerabilities. Quite outstanding”. Many shared this view: “A flicker of hope two-thirds of the way through this turgid film that something worthwhile may happen – but no – just descent into the most self-indulgent piece of filmmaking I have had the misfortune to witness”. “Quite an interesting contrast to the previous film, Our Little Sister, which also dealt with the challenges of "everyday lives", but with vibrancy, warmth and hope that was all absent from this one”. “A rather dour, melancholy film. If the purpose was to show how dreary and lonely things can be in Montana, it succeeded! But I didn't really see or learn enough about any of the individual characters to feel any warmth or empathy toward them, except for Jamie the rancher and her achingly lonely, loveless existence”. “A rather uneven story – at its best it conveyed aching loneliness but there was too much slow meandering in the middle”. Other comments are on the website.

    “I disliked the sound quality. I get what she was trying to portray but the end result was hard going – possibly boring”. “Odd. Needed pulling together”. “Too long but interesting. Reminded me of Annie Proulx and her Wyoming stories”. “Lovely mountains; handsome horses”. “What was that all about?” “Very disappointing. I had problems understanding what was said”. “Too slow and the music was a giveaway”. “Soundtrack disappointing”.

    “Very different – a film that goes nowhere, is soporific, interesting and meanders gently. A total contradiction & experience. Interesting in a weird sort of way”. “I was still waiting for something to happen when the lights went up!” “Very hard to sustain interest in such a long eventless film – poor dialogue and out of focus shots didn’t help. The girl with the horses acted well”. “A waste of four talented actors in a lot of beautiful scenery. Started slowly – then lost pace! One could go on and on – but I would not want to waste your time reading”.

    “Could not hear the dialogue – subtitles would have helped – but loved the young woman with the horses; and the horses”. “The slow burn rewarded you in the end. More films like this next season please”. “Wish we had more films like this – US “Indy Films” All aspects excellent”. “Very human. Not more to say. I for one have been in the situation of not knowing what to say and wishing I could say nothing as these “certain women” did here – or at least the bare minimum. Fabulous scenery”. “Gentle, strangely absorbing, even though I understood perhaps 30% of the speech”. “Different I guess. It shows that real life is pretty lonely and unexciting”. “Powerful and convincing in its detail. But while beautifully made and acted, too preposterous and incoherent overall”. “A bit slow”. “Reflecting well the mundaness of ordinary life”. “Well that was a bit weird! Sound poor at times. Very slow”.

    “Montana here I come (NOT)”. “Very dark and gloomy – beautiful area but I’m not encouraged to go there as the people don’t seem to talk to each other. Different anyway”. “Good performances. Nice to see Laura Dern but overall too slow and could have done with a conclusion to the third story”. “I could not understand most of what was said because of the accents so I enjoyed the filming of the horses”. “I very much wanted to like it, but failed. Rather dull in narrative, character and colour”. “Apart from the photography, I struggled to find anything in it. Made worse by the American dialogue – which as usual I had difficulty understanding”. “Inaudible. Nice pictures. Didn’t understand the twist at the end”.

    “Boring. I could not understand it”. “No start, middle or finish”. “Boring, no story, no links”. “Utter drivel – pointless – no storyline. Could only her half the dialogue. Where do you get this stuff?” “The director must have been embarrassed to say “Action”, but would never say “Cut”. A film without any drams at all”. “Some of the photography was very good – evocative of Montana. Much of the diction was poor – almost needing subtitles. Not an enjoyable evening”. “Almost certainly the most excruciatingly dull, pointless and boring film I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit through”. “How did the director get funding for this film? Struggled to stay awake. Do not go to live in Montana!!” “Tedious in the extreme. Poor sound and direction. Nothing to redeem it”. “Pretty scenery doesn’t make an interesting film. Boring people doing boring things in boring places. Give me fantasies any day”. “By far the worst film I have seen at the film club. No story, very boring. What was it all about?” “Watching paint dry. Beautiful shots of snow”. “Words fail me. Maybe about loneliness? Did not get it”.

    “I found myself drawn into the lives of the women in this film in an unexpected way. Their stories became the starting point for a triggering of my imagination, a bit like reading a book, where I began to continue exploration of their lives in my mind… so each character became alive and I had hopes, fears and expectations for them all… At first the sound quality made it difficult to follow but as that improved i was drawn in....and was left at the end wanting more… which for me is an indication of a good film… ”. “The best film I’ve seen about nothing happening in Montana”. “An intriguing film of very little”. “The scenery was good but a lot of sound wasn’t, in fact we would have appreciated some subtitles”.

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