Kelly Reichardt gets quiet in Montana with an incredible cast
Certain Women (2016)
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart
Indie film storyteller Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff) offers up another of her slow, contemplative character studies in the minimalist, female-centric drama Certain Women.
The film is based on author Maile Meloy’s collection of short stories and concentrates on a trio of women living in small-town Montana. Unlike other films of the type—Robert Altman’s Nashville, Paul Haggis’ Crash or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia—our three stories don’t necessarily intersect ... and don’t entirely unfold independent of one another either. They exist like separate chapters of the same book with threads that occasionally become entangled in one another. Or don’t. Reichardt isn’t one to search for larger cosmic details of fate, synchronicity or coincidence. Instead, she prefers to focus on the importance of insignificant details: the rustle of leaves in the trees, the slow rise and fall of someone’s breath, the look on someone’s face when the phone rings.
Our first story centers on a lawyer (Laura Dern) stuck in the middle of a moral quandary. She’s dealing with a troublesome client (Jared Harris from “Mad Men,” considerably earthier than normal). He’s a construction worker who was seriously injured on the job. His employer bears responsibility for the accident, but he settled out of court and has long since given up his right to sue. That’s what she’s been telling him for eight months. But he just won’t listen. So she takes him to another lawyer in big-city Billings, who tells him the same thing. He suddenly accepts it. On the way home, our lawyer laments her gender. “I wish I was a man. That way I could talk about the law, and people would actually listen.” But it’s her sensitivity to her client that puts her between a rock and a hard place—particularly when he decides to go postal, and she’s forced to rescue him once again.
The second chapter revolves around a vaguely discontented woman (Reichardt’s longtime collaborator Michelle Williams) with a surly teenager and a secret-keeping husband (James Le Gros). The family is trying to build a weekend retreat out in the middle of the countryside, and the story’s deceptively simple narrative revolves around trying to buy a pile of native limestone from an elderly man (Rene Auberjonois). This one slips by the quickest and requires the most contemplation to tease out its sotto voce meaning.
The final, most openly emotional chapter introduces us to a lonely Native American ranch hand (excellent newcomer Lily Gladstone) named Jamie who wanders into an adult education center and sits in on a class about educational law for teachers. Jamie has no interest in the topic, of course, but she develops a fascination with the instructor, a socially awkward law school graduate played by Kristen Stewart (in one of her best roles). The two develop a confusing platonic relationship that becomes difficult to figure out—for them as well as us.
The tryptic of tales pass each other like ships in the night in the film’s quiet coda, leaving audiences to parse their own meaning from it all. Obviously, we have three stories of three women—all vaguely dissatisfied with their lives, disconnected from those around them and looking to accomplish their modest goals in a world ruled by patriarchy or tradition or simple miscommunication.
Reichardt is a director of natural rhythms, never imposing her narrative over what’s happening. Characters rarely make overt decisions, dialogue is best left unsaid, and stories go teasingly unfinished. Aching stretches of silence fill the film, without so much as a courtesy soundtrack to alleviate the discomfort. Fans of Reichardt’s past efforts will be well at home, but this isn’t the sort of film likely to win a lot of new converts. But at the end of the day, she’s not nearly as obtuse as fellow nature worshipper Terrence Malick (Badlands, The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life). Certain Women is a low-gear exercise in melancholy and reticence, but it’s empathetic, beautifully rendered and quite deep if you stare hard enough.