When you have three of the best female actors working today in your film, it makes sense to have them on-screen together as much as possible, right? Not if you are Kelly Reichardt. A darling of independent American film, Reichardt has never been one to follow a particular formula and with Certain Women she has secured the services of Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and Michelle Williams without having any of them interact on screen. Instead, the film is segmented into three separate stories and although there is a character crossover between two of them, the stories are linked primarily by geography. All three stories are set in small-town Montana and each of the women are intelligent yet filled with disappointment about the state of their lives, each quietly suffering and enduring the emptiness that each day brings. Despite the undeniable talent of the Dern/Stewart/Williams triumvirate – each of whom is every bit as good as we might expect – it is Lily Gladstone who is perhaps the standout in an understated yet undeniably powerful performance opposite Stewart. There is an extraordinary stillness in Reichardt’s imagery that articulates the mundane lives of the women whilst emphasising the beauty of this part of the world.
The first segment features Dern as Laura, a lawyer who returns to her office following a lunchtime dalliance to be met by Fuller (Mad Men’s Jared Harris), a client who refuses to accept that he has lost a compensation claim and demands that Laura continue to fight his case. Exploring the lack of respect that female professionals endure – perhaps in small towns more than elsewhere – it is only when a male attorney endorses Laura’s assessment of the case that Fuller is willing to accept his fate, a realisation which triggers a stand-off that Laura ultimately has to resolve because the local policemen have no interest in putting their lives on the line. From what we learn of Laura, she lives alone and is seemingly prepared to put up with the quasi-friendship she has developed with Fuller simply for the human interaction it provides.
In the next story, Gina (Michelle Williams) is a wife and mother with plans afoot to build a house on a picturesque site in the Montana countryside. Her relationship with her husband Ryan (James LeGros) seems stilted and fuelled by the flames of familiarity more than anything else and there is no doubt her project is about trying to find a place of happiness. Television veteran Rene Auberjonois (Boston Legal and Madam Secretary among many others) appears as a somewhat muddled old man from whom Gina wants to secure a pile of limestone blocks that have been sitting unused in his front yard for decades. Despite being married with a teenage daughter, Gina cuts a lonely figure within the family unit, seemingly a third wheel to the bond between father and daughter. Most content when alone in the bush, it is obvious that the new house is more about providing an escape for her than anything else and it is another fine turn from Williams, who has worked with Reichardt twice before on Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff.
The third segment is a heartbreaking commentary on the challenges and pitfalls facing those trying to escape the daily drudgery of their lives. Gladstone is Jamie, a young woman responsible for the care of animals on a ranch, her days spent alone engaged in the monotonous repetition that her responsibilities necessarily demand. When she stumbles into a night class being taught by EIizabeth (Kristen Stewart), she is immediately captivated by the out-of-towner and a friendship ensues, a connection that Jamie craves, but for Elizabeth is merely a friendship of convenience given that she knows nobody else in the town. The sense of loss that Goldstone articulates without words is remarkable, her eyes alone conveying an array of emotions – embarrassment, sadness, confusion – much more than words ever could.
Reichardt, who also edited as well as writing and directing, holds many scenes for a few moments beyond the cessation of the action, enabling the audience time to ponder on the sub-text that permeates each scene and she uses the extraordinary quiet and stillness of the landscape in an emotionally powerful manner. These are intelligent women whose lives are filled with disappointment and despair, each enduring the emptiness of each new day with a sense of resignation, a feeling of isolation even if they aren’t truly alone. The cinematography is exquisite and the acting is expert from all concerned, with Goldstone perhaps upstaging her more famous co-stars. There is no conventional beginning-middle-end narrative arc in these vignettes – which were adapted from a collection of short stories by Maile Meloy – but it matters little that we have been dropped into these lives with no back story because every character feels as though they are normal people and it’s this relatability that makes Certain Women so effective.