Directed by Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women is another classic example of the post-Oscars season when random, non-genre specific films rise to the top of the pile and find late limited releases in screens all over the place. This particular picture first made waves way back at the beginning of last year when it debuted at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, was then theatrically released in the states last October, and now finally has made its way over the pond to a theatre near me.
Certain Women tells the intertwined but not necessarily connected stories of four women living in and around Montana. We have Laura Wells (Laura Dern), a lawyer with a disgruntled client, Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams), a mother losing touch with her family dynamic, Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart), another lawyer teaching an evening class at a high school and Jamie (Lily Gladstone), an isolated ranch worker who stumbles upon and becomes attached to Beth’s class by complete chance. The first thing I will say is that Certain Women is definitely a film that requires an enormous amount of patience. Much like the average way of life in a small Montana town, the pace is incredibly slow and the narrative is far from exciting or adventurous, but what you trade in for those particular cinematic elements is a rather hypnotic deep dive into the lives of a cross section of different women in different situations, all culminating in a similar sense of bittersweet melancholy. The film has no real beginning, middle and end so to speak, it drops you right into these character’s situations and encourages you to build an immediate connection with each of them, and it would be fair to say that this happens with varying results.
Split in to three distinct chapters, the journeys made by both Dern and Williams’ characters, whilst certainly having metaphorical merit, feel like slow preludes to the narrative section surrounding Stewart and Gladstone which really, for me, at least, is when the picture is at its most intriguing and engaging. Without ever really being aggressively touched upon, themes such as sexism, sexuality, adultery, depression and loneliness crop up across all three of the film’s main subplots, and the deft touch used to highlight each one sends a really poignant message that these situations and interactions are everyday occurrences, not only for these women in Montana but for all women across the world. Understated is certainly the word of the day when it comes to describing the tone of the picture, but I’ll take well acted, well constructed understatement over pointless bangs and crashes everyday of the week. Certain Women is a melancholy look in to the varied lives of women who, though at completely different stages of their lives and facing completely different sets of circumstances, all feel a similar sense of despondency that makes for slow moving but rewarding drama.
It must be said that the film wouldn’t be even half as enjoyable without the chosen cast. Opening up proceedings is Laura Dern as the somewhat downtrodden lawyer Laura. Dern gives a wonderfully compassionate performance, playing a character whose personal life is complicated and whose professional willingness to help others puts her in a very compromising situation. Michelle Williams gives what I would describe as a typical Michelle Williams performance, portraying a character whose repressed sadness could spill over at any moment. There are very few actresses who can play conflicted, understated vulnerability like Williams can, so you can’t blame her for being cast in the same types of roles so often. Kristen Stewart is at her awkward best as Beth, the young lawyer who is struggling to find both her feet and her confidence in her career. When it comes to Stewart’s screen presence, you either are a fan or you are not, and I just so happen to be a big fan so her introspective, insecure, skittish characterisation definitely does it for me.
The MVP of the entire piece though, in my opinion, is Lily Gladstone as ranch hand Jamie. Living the most reclusive and lonely life of all four women, Gladstone absolutely makes the biggest connection with the audience and garners the most effusive and emotional viewer response. One’s heart breaks for Jamie as she tries to navigate the prospect of friendship, and something more, with Stewart’s Beth, and Gladstone perfectly portrays a character whose social skills are untuned and whose experience of that part of life is clearly limited. Every member of the cast does a great job in their respective roles, but Gladstone is definitely the actress whose impact you will remember the longest.
Overall, Certain Women is the kind of film where nothing happens and everything happens, does that make any sense at all? It is a quiet, concentrated movie with a freeform narrative that examines wide questions rather than telling a simple, circular story. If you have the patience and capacity to enjoy a slow burn that favours knowing glances over car chases, then there is definitely lots to be gained from the experience.