CERTAIN WOMEN, drama, rated R, Violet Crown, 4 chiles
In muddy, wintry southern Montana, Laura (Laura Dern), a lawyer, is contending with the unreasonable demands of an unhinged client. Meanwhile, Gina (Michelle Williams) is determined to build her dream home, even if it means conning a sentimental old codger out of his pile of sandstone, and Beth (Kristen Stewart) is tackling a grueling four-hour biweekly commute to teach a continuing-education class, where she makes an unlikely friend.
Director Kelly Reichardt’s quietly impressionistic film stitches together this triptych with largely invisible seams, bolstering the reputation the indie filmmaker has developed as a poet of the mundane.
Certain Women, based on a collection of short stories by Maile Meloy, is the latest in Reichardt’s continuum of narratives devoted to isolated yet fortified Northwestern women, a theme she also probed in Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Meek’s Cutoff (2010). Along with Certain Women, these films — all of which feature intense, enigmatic performances from Williams — provide their rugged heroines with striking landscapes that recall Hollywood Westerns. And like the strong, silent men of that cinematic tradition, Reichardt’s outsider women confront their situations with true grit.
Take Laura, a small-town attorney who plods from an illicit midday assignation to meet with Fuller, a surly worker’s comp plaintiff (Jared Harris). For months, she’s been telling him he has no case, but it’s clear that he needs to hear that from a higher authority (read: a man) before he’ll fold. When he does, Laura resignedly drives him home as he rails and rages against the machine that has brought him to this crisis of mediocre American manhood. Dern’s varied reactions to Fuller’s histrionics flash across her face as she drives. Sympathy — and then disgust and fear — coalesce silently in her expression when Fuller begins to sob to the strains of Guy Clark’s “I’ve Got Boats to Build.” The potent scene, like several in this film, highlights the extreme disconnection of its characters, even as they inhabit the same small space.
In another car, a vast and stunning landscape reflects onto Gina’s passenger-side window, partially obscuring her as she passive-aggressively argues with her ineffectual husband ( James Le Gros) on their way back home from a sandstone-bargaining expedition. The reflection seems to point to her own immateriality in a world that may not quite be meant for her. Williams plays Gina with a shrewd selfishness — she is looking to obtain the rock pile and build a house from reclaimed materials in search of something authentic for herself. When she gets her way, a stillun met existential longing plays all over her face.
The most compelling narrative thread follows uptight twenty-something teacher Beth as she tries to make a school-law class palatable to a bored audience of after-hours teachers. The class includes Jamie (the magnetic Lily Gladstone), a local stable hand who wanders in seemingly by accident on the first day but stays to listen to Beth. The two spend time together at a diner after classes, though their stilted conversation largely amounts to non sequiturs — Beth responds to Jamie’s tale of how she hurt her wrist breaking horses with “I was so afraid I’d get out of law school and be selling shoes.” Stewart and Gladstone impressively underplay their burgeoning kinship, which seems like it just might bridge the obvious gulf between them. But that tenuous connection builds to a heartbreaking crescendo that serves to reinforce each woman’s essential loneliness.
Certain Women’s best moments exist in sly nonverbal gestures: in Dern’s matter-of-fact untangling of a scarf after she puts on a bulletproof vest over it, or Gladstone’s reverent, rhythmic brushing of the horses she cares for. The film is a profound reminder of the everyday visual poetry that tethers an individual’s interiority to the outside world. Reichardt illustrates how these small, encapsulated moments carry truth, beauty, and virtue — ideals our human connections so frequently lack. — Molly Boyle
Exiles in guyville: from top left, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, and Michelle Williams