Certain Women is the kind of movie that seems simple on the surface, but beyond the most obvious narrative level, its scope is almost limitless. This is director Kelly Reichardt's typical approach, to express complex ideas and social mechanics through stories that feel low-key and tranquil at first glance. Old Joy (2006) follows two estranged friends as they reunite on a hiking trip, but the growing rift between them speaks volumes about class inequality and notions of responsibility in American life. Wendy and Lucy (2008) observes the relationship between a woman and her dog, but it's one of the most shattering portrayals of how financial hardship can affect and endanger the bonds we hold most dear. Even Meek's Cutoff (2010), a pseudo-Western in which a band of travelers becomes lost and faces mortality in the arid Oregonian desert, is closer to the observational cinema of Chantal Akerman than a survival drama. Now, Certain Women, a triptych of stories following women living in modern-day Montana, is so reserved and open-ended in its storytelling that the stakes feel low at times, but that imperturbable surface hides a firestorm of emotions and ideas.
Adapted from the short stories of Maile Meloy, Certain Women follows four female protagonists who come from vastly different personal and professional backgrounds. Laura Dern plays Laura, a lawyer in a small Montana town struggling to represent a client (Jared Harris) who suffered a traumatic head injury on the job, but now finds it impossible to sue his employer. He ultimately takes a hostage in his former contractor's office to force some kind of repayment, as Laura is sent in to negotiate with him. Laura, it turns out, is sleeping with a married man, Ryan (James Le Gros), who co-owns a construction firm with his wife, the rigidly pragmatic Gina (Michelle Williams). Their diametric personalities are made clear as they try to broker the sale of a pile of centuries-old sandstone from an old man (Rene Auberjonois) who's lived outside of town for decades. The last and longest sequence tenderly observes the reticent, unconsummated, possibly unrequited flirtation between two women: Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a rancher of Native American descent, and Beth (Kristen Stewart), the lawyer who has to commute several hours a day to teach a local class on school law.
An epilogue of sorts in the last ten minutes nearly allows these three storylines to converge, but they never do; and it's not accurate to say that these brief follow-ups at the end provide any sort of closure. Characters promise to stay more in touch, though the audience surmises that they probably won't; we're left to guess at the tumultuous feelings going on beneath stoic faces as they observe the unchanging lives around them. The end of the final sequence between Jamie and Beth is perhaps the most excruciating: we ache for any kind of tender exchange between them, for Beth to show up unannounced at Jamie's ranch as in the climaxes of the romantic dramas that we're used to. The open endings here aren't pointlessly ambiguous: they question the very nature of character and narrative that most stories offer us, and emphasize the gap between those pat resolutions and the messy, unsatisfying strands of real life.
There are no teary confrontations, no explosions literal or figurative, but Certain Women tries to do no less than grapple with the unresolvability of American life in the 21st century (specifically for women). The first segment questions ideas of morality, justice, criminality; Laura must grapple with whether her law-abiding actions and her dedication to her career can be, at least at times, the wrong thing to do (and what that black-or-white dichotomy even means). Gina and Ryan's quest to buy unused sandstone that's been in their community since the 19th century deconstructs the myth of American capitalism and manifest destiny: they buy it simply because they can. Ryan is ambivalent about it from the start, but Gina only starts to question the purchase afterwards, reasoning with herself that if they hadn't bought it, someone else would have. The relationship (or lack thereof) between Jamie and Beth dissects the nature of love, both romantic and platonic, and our bonds with animals. The thematic crux here is less ideological but hugely existential: the universal human need for companionship.
These ideas are conveyed not through explicit dialogue but through the language of film form. The fracturing of space when Laura goes from the lower to the upper level of her law office, for example, is a literal portrayal of class stratification: her clients are shut out from her lofty upper-class domain. More poignantly, the sound of a bird's call, singing a tone that sounds like "how are you?," represents the tense relationship between Gina and the old man, Albert, from whom she buys sandstone—a tension borne of both Albert's sexism and Gina's cold, businesslike demeanor. The most devastating moment of the film, in fact, might be a late close-up of Gina as she listens to this birdcall from offscreen: a few seconds that express the fractious nature of capitalism, gender relations, history, the Western frontier, and the disconnect between generations in modern America that could easily be missed if the audience isn't listening to the soundtrack. How many other films (or filmmakers) can do so much in a matter of only a few seconds of screen time?
Unlike the Coen Brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), which pretends to be a postmodern revision of the Western genre but is really just a self-satisfied spoof of its most obvious tropes, Certain Women deconstructs the myths of the Western genre and the American philosophy of the rugged frontier. Classics of the genre like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) play notions of civilization and the Wild West off of each other, suggesting that the attempt to "tame" the West through law and order was just an extension of American imperialism. Certain Women echoes that theme through the lens of a female perspective, as the introduction of the law, capitalism, and education do little to lessen the divides between people (specifically men and women) even centuries later. The very first majestic shot of Certain Women makes its deconstructionist aims clear: with a grand landscape of mountains in the background, a train cuts a path from the background to the foreground, conjuring the predominance of trains in Western folklore (the machine that ultimately brought civilization) and movies like Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). But Reichardt is interested in showing how the images of the American West from mainstream depictions (which so often excluded women) vary drastically from real life.
Since her feature debut River of Grass in 1994, Reichardt has carved out a role as one of American cinema's most vital and unique voices, dissecting the minute specifics of modern life with exacting care and a refreshing trust in her audience's intelligence. She is aided here by performances from some of the best actors working today (as Gladstone easily matches the flawless work of major names like Dern, Williams, and Stewart), but the biggest thrill in Certain Women is watching how precisely Reichardt develops her ideas through framing, editing, sound design, and dialogue. A handful of her movies belong on any list of the best films of the 21st century, and Certain Women is among them: an inexhaustibly rich work whose modesty is in inverse proportion to its magnitude.
Premiere: January 24, 2016 (Sundance Film Festival)
US Release: October 24, 2016
US Distributor: IFC Films
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writers: Kelly Reichardt, Maile Meloy (based on stories by)
Producers: Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani
Music: Jeff Grace
Cinematography: Christopher Blauvelt
Editor: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Laura Dern, James Le Gros, Jared Harris, John Getz, Joshua T. Fonokalafi, Michelle Williams, Sara Rodier, Rene Auberjonois, Lily Gladstone, Kristen Stewart