As is usual these days, before settling down to watch Certain Women at our local cinema, we were blasted by adverts and film trailers cut fast and laced with the thundering percussion that these days is de rigueur, as if we all suffer from ADHD. Increasingly, mainstream cinema feels like a sonic and mental assault, all sound and fury, inhabiting some black hole out where the reality of daily life and ordinary people no longer exists. The welcome thing about Kelly Reichardt’s low-key, intimate and deliberately anti-dramatic film is its quiet contemplation of ordinary days in the lives of ordinary characters.
Certain Women opens with a train moving slowly through the heartland of Montana, honking its horn occasionally along the way. We will hear that train again, blaring its horn in the background of these characters’ lives, both connecting them in our subconscious and serving thematic purpose. Reichardt returns to images of life going past this mountain town – trains, freeways in the distance, a flowing river – to remind us of both the ordinary nature of these stories and to connect them to each other and even our lives.
That’s Brian Tellerico, reviewing the film for Roger Ebert.com. Kelly Reichardt has drawn her characters from short stories by Maile Meloy in her collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. There’s no grand plot, no big reveal at the end, and the lives of these four women barely intersect. The film is slow and so understated that an early scene in which there is an armed hostage-taking incident is, as Peter Bradshaw observed in his Guardian review, ‘directed so calmly it feels as if we’re watching a mild disagreement at a church coffee morning.’ Rather than high drama, Reichardt is focussed on character studies of the four women, and her film might easily have been titled ‘Certain Days’ since it is primarily dispassionate witness to a few ordinary days in its ordinary characters’ lives, achieving no particular dramatic resolution or thematic conclusion.
In making these character studies, Reichardt is aided by some damn fine acting. In the first of the three sections that form the film we meet Laura (played by Laura Dern). She’s a lawyer in the small town of Belfry in Montana, set in flatlands with snow-dusted mountains on the horizon, who lives alone but for her dog. The film opens with a lunchtime assignation in a local hotel bedroom with a man who is revealed in the next section to be the husband of its protagonist, Gina. (Actually, I missed that connection, and only realised it later when reading Peter Bradshaw’s review.) The relationship is not significant in Laura’s story, which concerns a difficult client who is driving her slightly crazy with his persistent visits to her office to complain about the minimal compensation he was awarded following an accident at work. Whilst looking to Laura for the emotional support that his wife doesn’t provide, he refuses to accept the legal advice she proffers about his case.
In the second – and least satisfactory – section Gina (Michelle Williams) is building a weekend retreat on a plot of land outside town. She’s camping out with her husband and daughter, both of whom she senses are sometimes allied in a silent conspiracy against her. The family disharmony is underscored by the tension that crackles in encounters with an elderly local who lives in the house next to their plot. Gina wants the pile of old sandstone blocks that sits on his land to add a traditional element to the house she is building. There’s something here that juxtaposes the transience of Gina as the outsider and summer resident, and the fragility of her marriage, with the permanence of the rocks and the long-time resident.
Gina’s story, while meticulously acted, feels insubstantial and uninvolving. In a perceptive review for the Metro, Harry Readhead writes:
For the all the empathy with which Reichardt treats her characters and the skill with which she captures both the stark beauty of the Montanan landscape, the minimalism of Certain Women slips at times into monotony.
He added that ‘the three narratives, though united by theme and by location, are lined up gracelessly in a row and dealt with methodically, rather than interwoven in a fluent and forceful way.’
However, the third section of the film is its saving grace: a quiet, perfect vignette in which a silent and unreciprocated passion is revealed almost entirely through the strikingly expressive face of actress Lily Gladstone (who has an interesting background) in her first screen role. Gladstone plays Jamie, a Native American ranch hand who is seen cleaning out and feeding the horses, assisted only by a lively corgi. Scenes of these daily chores in which her only companions are the animals are repeated several times, reinforcing a sense of Jamie’s isolation.
Lonely and seeking human company, she wanders into a night school class on education law for teachers. The young tutor, who turns up late and flustered, is Beth (Kristen Stewart), a newly-qualified lawyer who knows little about education law. It quickly becomes apparent that the course is mainly an opportunity for the teachers in the class to grumble about their jobs. Jamie is smitten, and invites Beth to eat at the local diner before she faces the long drive back to her home in a town many miles away. The same routine is repeated for several weeks as the night class continues. The scenes between Beth and Jamie in the diner are quite superb. Beth, weary of the long drive to teach the course, and self-deprecating about her poor knowledge of the subject, does most of the talking while Jamie simply listens and watches, a picture of radiant vulnerability with her eyes aglow and a guileless smile on her face. Beth sees Jamie’s interest in her, but maintains a polite social distance, too absorbed in her own troubles to recognise the intensity of Jamie’s emotions.
It’s this final segment, with its melancholy rhythms and performances by Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone that you can’t take your eyes off, that lifts the film and makes it linger in the memory. It’s not a masterpiece, and I would be selective in who I recommend it to, but as Brian Tellerico put it in his review, it’s the observant realism of the film’s characters (and the quality of the acting) that makes it worth watching:
Whether it’s a disgruntled client who sees no way out of his predicament, a man who closes a chapter in his life when he parts with his sandstone, or the daily grind of working on a farm. These are normal people, like you and me, and it’s that relatability that makes Reichardt’s work here so powerful. Every single character, even the minor ones, feel like they exist before they come into frame and keep going long after.
Certain Women is a quiet, understated sketch of character making their way in a small Montana town. It’s also a poem of silences, open skies and distant horizons due to the way in which cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt has captured the almost empty plains and mountains of Montana on grainy, luminous film.
The essential tension in a story lies … not so much in the mystery of its destination as in the mystery of the spaces between its steps towards that destination. All stories are discontinuous and are based on a tacit agreement about what is not said, about what connects the discontinuities.
– John Berger, Another Way of Telling