It’s easy to pigeonhole filmmakers into specific categories by only skimming the surface. This method can help with setting expectations and aligning directors, but it also limits how we can approach their work. For example, Kelly Reichardt might slot into the slow or minimalist cinema style of filmmaking. That designation fails to appreciate the way she draws characters, however. Her latest film Certain Women reveals so much by simply watching the female leads. Reichardt pulls the camera in close and lets us connect without clogging the soundtrack with dialogue. The performers have room to develop their roles naturally on the screen.
Adapted from Maile Meloy’s short story collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, this film depicts three individual tales connected by geography and mood. Characters briefly occupy the same space but aren’t aware they’re part of a single narrative. It’s a clever way to bypass the directorial manipulation of a lesser picture like Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Babel while reminding us this is the same world. Reichardt (who also wrote the screenplay) spends about a half hour with each character and then circles back for a brief moment with each one at the end.
The segments function like short films but don’t feel too abbreviated. There’s a primary arc for each lead without cramming too much into it. These individuals have lives away from what we see. The grand Montana landscape is inviting yet still gloomy; we can feel the cold emanating off the screen. The sun rarely appears, but it’s hardly a depressing look either. Each story has its own atmosphere while sticking to the film’s style. The cinematography from Christopher Blauvelt (who also shot Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves) pulls the grays and browns to the front. The mundane, humble locations help avoid the gloss that can keep audiences at a distance.
We first see Laura Wells (Laura Dern) after a lunchtime affair in a grim apartment. She seems happy for the moment but resigned to leaving the brief haven. The married guy barely registers a grunt before heading back to his life. Wells’ face shows a weariness of someone who knows the score. When the guy calls later with bad news, she responds like it’s just another day at the office. Her law client (Jared Harris) is so needy to have a friend, and Wells is sympathetic to the point. His willingness to believe a male lawyer immediately after repeatedly questioning her assessment says plenty. The oldest of the three leads, Wells has faced the most obstacles yet keeps working. She even steps in to defuse a potential deadly hostage situation.
Reichardt brings the camera surprisingly close to Dern’s face, especially in profile. Her small-town charm fits the character perfectly. Wells tries to project confidence while struggling to pull it all together. She spends the first scene with Fuller with her shirt half-tucked after her rendezvous. It’s a clever way to show Wells’ inner mess without having her say anything about it. There are similarities in the way Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) maintains perfect-looking workout clothes. She’s used to being the boss and conveys that sentiment in every facet of her life. Williams’ melancholy face tells a very different story, however.
The centerpiece of Lewis’ story is a visit with her husband (James Le Gros) to acquire sandstone from their older friend Albert (Rene Auberjonois). This quest for something authentic drives Lewis, while her family grumbles along the way. It’s one of the few scenes where Williams smiles and seems content. Lewis seems in her element with a clear goal in mind. It’s much easier than connecting with her distant teenage daughter. Reichardt again pulls close to the performer’s face, and this allows us to see the cracks in Lewis’ cool façade. Just changing her clothes feels like an ordeal. Her beta husband seems to care yet doesn’t know how to connect. It’s only the smile in Williams’ final scene that gives us hope for her future. One step at a time is the key.
The most engaging story is the final segment where Jamie (Lily Gladstone) falls in love with young lawyer Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart). It’s a quiet tale of two people with little in common. Jamie works on a ranch and moves deliberately, while Beth is stressed and antsy while teaching the night class. We see this crush from Jamie’s perspective as she looks for ways to connect with her new friend. The daily routine of tending to the horses and other animals differs from her growing interest in Beth. Despite the odds against it, we yearn for Beth to share Jamie’s interest. Their quiet horseback ride from the school to the diner hints that maybe something is there.
It’s refreshing to see a film with three award-worthy performances from female leads. Lily Gladstone in particular stands out because this is my first exposure to her work. She was recently nominated as a Breakthrough Actor by the Gotham Independent Film Awards, and it’s a well-deserved honor. Her best small moment comes when she believes that Beth won’t be in class. Her look of sadness quickly turns to glee when Beth arrives late. The subtle smile on her face says all that we need to know. Dern and Williams have also rarely been better, and that’s saying a lot given their careers. Kristen Stewart constantly reminds us that she’s more than a one-note movie star. It’s easy to see why Beth would draw Jamie’s attention.
Reichardt frequently uses the camera to give the audience a female point of view. While not obviously coming from the characters’ eyes, we can identify better with them by following their path. Other shots also take their time in showing regular people from the town. During one visit by Jamie and Beth to the diner, Reichardt first travels around the room and shows the various citizens. These aren’t the typical extras and resemble the people that would be eating at a truck-stop diner in the middle of nowhere. It’s another subtle way to create a believable environment.
The challenge for some audiences with Certain Women may be the lack of definite closure to any story. The open-ended situations (in most cases) don’t feel like a cheat, however. Reichardt takes a moment to show us how life will continue in each case. There’s no shocking twist or chill-inducing connection here. Each woman moves forward, and the tone doesn’t feel sad. Like all of our lives, the daily challenges never entirely go away. There are successes and failures, and all we can do is try to make human connections along the way.
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