Certain Women (2016)

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

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Certain Women tells the story of three women in a small Montana town.  Their lives intersect but not to any noteworthy degree, instead just passing by like the characters in Richard Linklater’s Slacker.  This overlapping quality has little to no dramatic momentum and instead just further fleshes out the world, to take the focus away from any single character.  In doing so they feel less cinematic, but all the more authentic.

Even within any of the three de facto short films on display here these characters’ lives aren’t filled with much spectacular drama.  There are moments of elevated tension, but they never precede the type of catharsis and change that you expect in a narrative film.  In one such moment, a police standoff, our main character Laura (Laura Dern), ends up as the hostage to one of her disgruntled clients (Jared Harris), yet the film never suggests she’s in any real danger.  Even Laura herself treats the event as if it’s no different than any other in her life, likely because she’s well acquainted with her client’s instability.

Another story follows Gina (Michelle Williams) and her husband, Ryan (James Le Gros) as they try to buy sandstone off of an elderly man for the house they wish to build.  Their marriage is tense, with Gina a bit distant from her husband (who cameos in Laura’s story as the man she’s sleeping with) as well as from her daughter.

Then the third story is the most heartbreaking because the main character, a lonely rancher (Lily Gladstone) feels so innocent and isolated.  She wanders into a night school class taught by Beth (Kristen Stewart), who is tired from the hours-long commute to the class she doesn’t feel properly qualified enough to teach.  The rancher takes a quick liking to Beth, but soon Beth hands the class over to someone else because the commute it too unbearable.

Each story is so quiet and yet so alive.  The whole world as seen onscreen feels a bit bleak, both due to the location and time of year (winter) and the cinematography in which everything feels muted.  The characters themselves speak calmly, but you can feel the emotion underneath, the frustration and sadness.  They have internalized the grief and the anger so that it can only bubble out in small moments.

That they feel so fraught is all the more telling because their days are so ordinary, at least as far as they’re concerned.  This isn’t Laura’s first male client who has refused to take her advice, just as this isn’t the first time Gina has had to sit by while another man chose to speak about business to her husband and not to her.  Similarly this isn’t the first time, and probably not the last, that Beth’s law firm will send her out on assignments into the middle of nowhere.

They are characters pushing up against something though in ways that are not insignificant but perhaps futile.  They don’t seem likely to join in any great cause even though every day features some degree of resistance.  It’s bleak and maybe even a little frustrating, but the end suggests some level of acceptance or catharsis nevertheless.  Nothing specifically changes, but the characters find some peace, or at least they are framed in a way that suggests they do.

Up Next: Like Father, Like Son (2013), Stoker (2013), Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

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