Based on the 2009 short story collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It written by Maile Meloy, Certain Women is structured around three stories that briefly intersect. They are all set in the small town of Livingston, Montana. The three stories follow the emotional turmoil, the hopes and disappointments, and loneliness experienced by the characters. But this is a quiet introspective work rather than a sprawling intertwined narrative like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. Certain Women is the latest work from independent American filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff) who has carved out a niche for herself exploring themes of isolation, connection, and the place of women in contemporary America.
Those familiar with the films of Reichardt (particularly Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy) will know what to expect here with her minimalist and human approach to narrative – a slow moving and intimate film full of gentle reveals, subtle characterisation, a decided lack of action, meaningful silences, and steady camera work with long takes and beautiful landscapes as a backdrop. With her naturalistic style and unhurried approach Reichardt slowly and subtly teases out details about her characters. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (who shot both Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves for Reichardt) gives us some beautiful visuals and widescreen lensing captures the wide-open spaces and landscapes of Montana. The film gives us a wonderful depiction of these women, and is suffused with a strong sense of the provincial environment they inhabit.
Two of the stories in this omnibus are more restrained and introspective in nature, while the first story offers the most dramatic and tense narrative. But there are no big dramatic moments or emotional cathartic moments here, just a realistic examination of unfulfilled lives and the sense of disappointment that people feel about their lives and situation.
In the first chapter, we meet Laura Wells (Laura Dern), a lawyer who is disappointed with her life and career. Her disgruntled client (Jared Harris), a building site contractor involved in a personal injury suit, feels that he has been denied justice after a court rules against him. He creates a hostage situation which Laura has to defuse. In the second chapter, we meet Gina (Michelle Williams, a regular in Reichardt’s films), a married woman whose apathetic husband (James Le Gros) is cheating on her and whose surly teenage daughter feels alienated. The cracks become more obvious when the couple approach their elderly neighbour (Rene Auberjonois) to convince him to sell them a pile of sandstone blocks that are lying on his property so they can use them as they build their new home.
The third story follows Jane (newcomer Lily Gladstone), a lonely ranch hand who works on a ranch. She follows a daily routine feeding the animals, and then she attends classes at night school. There she finds herself attracted to Beth (Kristen Stewart), a young and inexperienced lawyer who is teaching a class. Beth has to drive four hours to teach the class and finds it hard to make any connection to her students, most of whom are middle aged. Jane invites her to diner for a meal and chat after class and a brief connection is formed. There is a poignant and melancholy air to this final segment, and also a frisson of sexual tension.
Certain Women is a showcase for the three leading actresses, and the subtly nuanced performances from the leads all help bring their characters and their conflicted emotional make-up to life. Dern brings a quiet strength and world weary quality to her role. In her third collaboration with the director, Williams has a pensive and thoughtful presence tinged with a touch of guilt. In a relatively small role, Stewart imbues a quiet and icy reserve to her performance; while Gladstone brings a heart-wrenching honesty and vulnerability.
Certain Women is currently screening exclusively as part of the Kelly Reichardt retrospective season at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI).
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television