Cer­tain Women

CER­TAIN WOMEN, drama, rated R, Vi­o­let Crown, 4 chiles

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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

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