Kelly Reichardt is an indie darling, and for good reason. This century, she has made two very good films and one masterpiece. The masterpiece, of course, is Wendy & Lucy, which should have carried her to Oscar glory, but was too little-seen, I fear. As she is one of a handful of directors consistently delivering interesting work, and here works with two of my very favourite actors, I anticipated her latest with considerable interest. So it is with some dismay that I must report that Certain Women is Reichardt’s weakest since Meek’s Cutoff.
Certain Women tries to form a triptych out of snippets of the lives of, uh, certain women. Like Wiener-Dog from earlier this year, the segments fit together clumsily. Well, the first two segments of Certain Women do fit together thematically, and the theme of both of them seems to be ‘Women, in many situations in Montana, don’t seem to be taken as seriously as men.’ Both of these sections last longer than needed to make this thematic point, but at the same time the narratives seem artificially, jarringly truncated. Not all the narratives, mind you, only the first two, which are given perfunctory codas at the end of the film.
The first segment follows Laura Dern, that most enchanting of American actresses, as a lawyer who has been dealing with a discontented client for months. The client, played by the always-welcome Jared Harris, has been steadfastly refusing her advice on a legal matter, so she sets him up for an appointment with another attorney. This attorney is a man, and gives Harris the exact same advice that Dern does; coming from him, Harris accepts instantly, and goes about his business of… well, I won’t spoil the next development.
This act not only illustrates the theme, but actually has Dern say it in her dialogue: ‘It’d be so lovely to think that if I were a man I could explain the law and people would listen and say, “Okay.” ’ This is a mistake for two reasons: one, I hate it when films do this, as I feel they’re insulting my intelligence, and two, Laura Dern is such a dexterous actor that you already know she’s thinking this just by observing her eyes and body language. When you have someone as preternaturally talented as Laura Dern in your film, you need to trust her.
In the second act, Michelle Williams and James Le Gros play a married couple, building a new house and trying to purchase some old stones for this purpose from their rancher neighbour. The neighbour (a fantastically barmy René Auberjonois) continually interrupts Williams during conversation, and only seems to respond to her husband. In the end, he agrees to sell the stones to Le Gros.
My attention was lagging in this act because, despite the presence of the always radiant Williams, it was simply dramatising the exact same theme again. (And not subtly.) Sure, the story is different, but the idea is the same, and it isn’t one Reichardt has a lot to say about—other than ‘Doesn’t it suck that men are generally viewed as more authoritative than women even though it’s #CurrentYear ?’ (Actually, this film could easily have taken place in the 80s or 90s. The only real marker pinning it to the 2010s are the phones we see the characters use. In Montana, it seems, everything moves quite slowly.)
The third act involves Kristen Stewart as a young lawyer, teaching a night class at a (very) rural school. Into this class wanders a shy rancher, played by newcomer Lily Gladstone, who has no concern for the law but considerable interest in the teacher. They begin having dinner at a nearby diner after class, where Stewart divulges that it’s a four-hour trip for her to teach there, and she always has leave quickly to be at her day job on time. After several classes, suddenly one evening Stewart has quit, prompting Gladstone to make the four-hour trek to find her…
Mercifully, Kristen Stewart didn’t really bug me in this role as she usually does, because here she’s playing someone self-absorbed and sullen—basically her screen personality anyway. Plus, she is supposed to be a sort of cipher onto which the Gladstone character projects desires, which fits well with the vacancy behind her eyes. Of all the actors in Certain Women, Gladstone seems to be getting all the attention from critics’ groups. I cannot share their enthusiasm; though hers is the most interesting character in the film, her performance is so muted, she seems to have wandered over from a Bresson picture.
Plus, the payoff to this final act is so similar to a moment in Brokeback Mountain, I’m surprised Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana don’t share screenplay credit. That Gladstone lacks a strong screen presence also drains the emotional impact of the sequence. When Gladstone’s truck comes to a stop, I felt frustrated, miffed, rather than moved. She clearly has talent; it just needs some time to mature.
The film is worth seeing only for Reichardt completists, and I do consider myself one. She indulges in many cinematic techniques that jive with me: a meditative narrative that takes its time to build, longer takes, a ruminative tone, etc. Most notable in Certain Women is her use of negative space: Laura Dern’s reflection in a tiny mirror against a vast wall, Gladstone in a truck dwarfed by resplendent plains and a distant mountain, a train cutting through the vast Montana landscape. This mirrors the negative space in the lives of Reichardt’s women: the huge self- or societally-imposed buffers between themselves and their wishes. It is, in so many ways, a beautiful film.
I just wish it played more like a film, than a dry thesis.