Criterion Review: Certain Women


Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women tells three stories of female malcontent in Montana, one of the least populous states in the United States. Connected by only the thinnest of narrative threads, each story offers delicate, quietly moving insight into the lives of its subjects.

Lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) has a client who has been stiffed out of an insurance payout following an accident at work. Laura has spent the last eight months explaining to Fuller (Jared Harris) that due to a legal loophole, he has no legal rights to make a claim. He won’t listen until she takes him to a male colleague, who has no problem convincing Fuller that he’s lost his case. Laura’s frustration with Fuller’s blatant sexism is soon overshadowed, however, when he takes a rifle to his old employer, holding the place hostage and demanding that Laura be sent to negotiate.

The second story sees Gina (Michelle Williams) camping with her husband Ryan (James Le Gros, earlier seen having an affair with Dern’s character). Happening upon a pile of disused rubble outside a house, Gina and her husband try to convince the occupant, Albert (Rene Auberjonois), to sell them the rubble to build an ‘authentic’ house from native Montana sandstone. However, Albert seems less interested in Gina’s offer, interrupting her to chat with Ryan.

The rural setting of Gina’s story is contrasted with the urban landscape of Laura’s, but the starkness of Christopher Blauvelt’s unvarnished cinematography ties the stories together just as effectively as the slight narrative crossovers. Reflections of bare trees play across Gina’s impassive face in the window of her car, while Laura’s piteous eyes, watching Fuller in the back of a squad car, speak of a deep weariness with which Gina is no doubt familiar. Rather than contriving overt thematic or narrative connections, Certain Women’s stories are structured to create a cumulative sense of mood. Delicately layering the emotional journeys of its subjects, Reichardt crafts three profoundly human stories rooted in a sense of space and time.

But it’s the third, featuring part-time teacher Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart) and the unrequited affections of her night-school student, The Rancher (Lily Gladstone) that is perhaps the most affecting. Driving four hours each way every night, exhausted Elizabeth welcomes the friendship of the Rancher, but it’s clear that her companion is looking for something more. Originally a man in Maile Meloy’s short story, the gender flip invites comparisons to gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain, but this is a far more understated romance than the one in Ang Lee’s film. It is terribly heartbreaking in its everyday familiarity, anchored by Gladstone’s achingly tender loneliness, reaching out for a semblance of human affection.

Only released last year, Certain Women is one of Criterion’s most contemporary additions to its collection, yet it is utterly deserving of this release. Reichardt’s film forgoes conventional narrative to depict life in its everyday weariness, a melancholy that is at once mundane and dramatic. Certain Women opens a window into the stories of four women, but one where the boundaries of their lives extend beyond those of the frame.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell

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