Certain Women. It’s there in the title. This is a film about certain women. Their lives are interconnected in certain ways, large and small, always existing simultaneously. Their stories share some themes, but their stories are different in other ways. This is a slice of life film where the lives we’re witness to are so fully realized that even the mundane, routine, and unspectacular are rich and layered. It is a precisely made film, with art in every frame, presented with masterful control. Kelly Reichardt has crafted something fascinating, something special.
There isn’t much to the plot of the film, which feels weird to say about a story that involves a hostage situation. Yes, a disgruntled man holds captives with a gun, but this is no action movie. Just as tense as the sequence featuring Laura Dern in a bulletproof vest approaching a gunman is a sequence in which a lonely rancher drives four hours to see the woman she has a crush on but barely knows, unannounced. In a similar vein to films such as Margaret and Boyhood, we’re witnessing situations that mean very specific things to certain people, but the world around them continues to move forward, Earth still spinning, lives continuing on. Just three stories, each elevated by the context of their surroundings.
The women the film focuses on are Laura (Laura Dern) a lawyer, Gina (Michelle Williams), a wife/mother working on building a home, a lonely rancher (Lily Gladstone), and a recently graduated law student teaching night classes (Kristen Stewart). Each of their stories play like dreamily related short films, which makes sense as Reichardt pulled from a collection of short stories from Maile Meloy. We see Dern’s lawyer working with a disgruntled client, hurt in a work accident. He pushes her on his case until she gets him a meeting with a male lawyer, who tells him exactly what she had been telling him for months. This time, he accepts the words. His and Laura’s relationship comes to an impactful, but not final, resolution, and then we’re introduced to Williams as Gina. Another story begins as we watch her camp with her family, a passive, undermining husband and prickly teenage daughter. They’re building a home from the ground up in a construction project, and Williams is in charge. This doesn’t endear her to her daughter, or really anyone else, but it gets results. She and her husband meet with an old man to talk about buying his sandstone: the home they meet in was a project started by the old man and his brother long ago, and never quite completed. It’s hard to tell how much of a shadow the foreshadowing casts upon Gina, but she leaves with the sandstone. Content, even if she’s not even quite sure what she wants to do with it yet. Then the film leaves her and brings us to probably the most hypnotic story. We meet Lily Gladstone’s rancher in slow, repetitive sequences of her work, feeding and caring for horses, maintaining the ranch and home. Her isolation is near extreme, if probably mostly self-imposed. When she notices and follows a crowd, she ends up dropping in on a night class on school law. She is drawn to the teacher, Kristen Stewart’s Beth. They talk at a nearby diner after most classes, until Beth stops teaching the class mid-term. The rancher loses an important, if young, connection to another person, and the weight of the impact on her is magnificent, made even heavier by the imbalance in the pair’s relationship when considering Beth’s perspective.
I hate to basically explain the film beat by beat, but it’s a hard one to spoil, and illustrates the way the film moves between moments and characters purposefully. It’s almost three short films, wrapped up with a small epilogue, but tiny connections breathe thought and remarkable empathy into the film. Pursuing Beth after she quits, the rancher stops by every law office she sees in a town she’s unfamiliar with, when another character we already know walks by. This character and the rancher don’t know each other. They don’t exchange so much as a glance, but the power of seeing one character, accompanied by the weight of all we know she’s gone through, just passing by another character we know, going through her own journey, is profound.
Certain Women is an accomplishment on so many levels. The filmmaking is exquisite. The film has no score for almost the entirety of the runtime, and when it brings music in, it is naturalistic and glorious. Perfectly composed cinematography mesmerizes and illuminates every second of the runtime. An early frame features a shot with a woman and a man both getting dressed in different rooms, divided by a wall. We see them both, doing essentially the same thing, but they’re separated, going through it differently. They look like they’re in different worlds, because they are. There’s a fantastic visual sequence where the man is on a bed, pulling on the last of his clothes. A woman’s foot enters from below to gently touch his back. Some dialogue is exchanged, there’s a cut to a different perspective. When cutting back to that same frame, the man leaves, and a woman’s face is now present in a mirror on the wall. Sitting in the theater, eyes on the screen, I don’t remember if she was there before. The effect is beautiful.
Each key performer astounds in their role. There are no impassioned speeches, pleas, or overwrought monologues. Just people. Characters, made achingly real by elite performers. Laura Dern is real. Magnetic, but still grounded. Exasperated, but empathetic. Jared Harris, as her client, goes through so much that he must confront several extreme sides to his personality, both in despair and desperation. Harris presents this character in a performance that will remain possibly the strongest by an actor this year, sympathetic even at his most pathetic. Michelle Williams embraces the high maintenance role her character’s’ family life forces her into. She is driven, calculating, manipulative, but also earnestly frustrated by small, emotional things. A stifled conversation with her daughter. A friendly wave gone unreturned. The frustration she presents is about so much more than what she’s experiencing in one moment, and her restraint is near heartbreaking. Kristen Stewart plays a character unlike any she’s been before. She is a teacher, dressed frumpy and obliviously uncool. When introducing herself to her class, she writes her name on the chalkboard in such small letters, it’d be silly to even consider anyone in the back of the class might be able to see it. However disconnected she feels from the job, she gives it some form of thought, crossing out “ELIZABETH” and writing “BETH” underneath again in tiny capital letters, diminishing herself even more, making herself even smaller before she becomes the center of attention, reading rigidly from cue cards. Stewart is subtle, nuanced. After her careful, cautious, slightly nervous performance in class, the way she lets some of the outsider/city confidence cautiously come out when alone with the rancher at the diner is extraordinary. To speak of the rancher, Lily Gladstone may steal the film. She is vulnerable. Alone on the ranch, yes, but she looks… comfortable, if not 100% content. The way joy starts to flicker in her as she gets to know Beth is conveyed in small smiles and careful gazes, culminating in a touching horse-ride where her smile at feeling Beth behind her on the mare is infectious, even if we fear the relationship may not end well.
I have a lot to say about Certain Women, but there’s a lot I can’t say about the work. It’s hard to sum up. I love it, which I hope I’ve conveyed, but in the tradition of great works, it requires more thought. More discussion. Another viewing. It is as human as a film has ever been, life captured through script and performance and cinematography in the most essential way. Not many films this year are better, and for Reichardt to have ignited such a brilliant flame amidst the cold Montana snow is remarkable. This film lives and breathes, I envision the lives of these characters before and after the beginning and end of the script, thoughts inspired by how fully realized a film this is. Much of my writing about the film here has been telling of the events as the film presents them, and that is because Certain Women speaks so well for itself, far better than anything I could write on it. The feeling this film gives me, the way it has made me think about it, is why I go to the movies. Reichardt’s slow cinema may not be that for everyone, but I earnestly hope it’s given a shot.