CERTAIN WOMEN * * * *
Starring Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Lily Gladstone and Rene Auberjonois. Written for the screen and directed by Kelly Reichardt.
The films of Kelly Reichardt take place in the space between words, within pauses and gestures. The silences are deafening and a lot of the time when people talk they may as well not be saying anything at all. Certain Women, this staggeringly talented writer-director’s sixth feature, is perhaps the purest distillation of Reichardt’s sensibility and might be her best film yet.
Like the previous pictures it’s a real grower – with exchanges and glances taking root in your mind and sometimes not flowering until a couple days later. (I’ve often confessed that during Reichardt’s 2006 breakthrough Old Joy I couldn’t wait for it to be over and then didn’t stop thinking about it for weeks afterwards.) These are not films for impatient viewers, but when they eventually land the impact can be seismic.
Adapted from a book of short stories by Maile Meloy, Certain Women consists of three brief vignettes about loneliness and miscommunication, overlapping slightly in the Montana locations and shared bit players but chiefly united by the emotional isolation of our protagonists. The first finds Laura Dern as the harried attorney for a blowhard (Jared Harris) with a hopeless workman’s comp case. In the second we meet Michelle Williams as a brittle professional woman struggling to keep up appearances in spite of her cheating husband and disinterested daughter. The third, most devastating story stars newcomer Lily Gladstone as a horse trainer who takes an extracurricular interest in a night-school teacher played by the ever-captivating (and completely oblivious) Kristen Stewart.
What strikes you almost immediately about these women is just how exhausted they are. Everybody here works too long and too late, illustrated via telltale details like Dern’s half-tucked sweater or Stewart wiping her mouth with a diner napkin that’s still wrapped around the silverware. Reichardt’s movies excel at such granular specifics (which is probably why they work so well on repeat viewings), following her characters through seemingly mundane day-to-day tasks and so fully immersing the viewer in their worlds that I could practically feel this film’s crisp, Northwestern autumn in a climate-controlled auditorium.
The stories in Certain Women don’t intersect so much as they echo one another and reverberate. When Dern drags Harris to another lawyer for a second opinion she discovers her client is far more amenable to her advice when he’s hearing it from a man. This is mirrored by an excruciatingly protracted sequence during which Williams tries to buy some sandstone from an area old-timer (Robert Altman favorite Rene Auberjonois) who passive-aggressively only answers to her husband. But then nobody ever really listens to one another in this movie, as most achingly portrayed when Stewart talks her way right past Gladstone’s wide-eyed adoration.
The movie can be devastatingly funny, albeit in its own peculiar way. Laura Dern has one of the best “I don’t have time for this shit” faces in the business, and I laughed out loud to learn that Williams’ character — a Whole Foods-type of city gal determined to build the most “authentic” country house money can buy – named her daughter “Guthrie.” Because of course she did.
Williams is the ringer here, having already starred in Riechardt’s Wendy And Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff. She gives us the story of her life just in the way she sneaks a cigarette out on a hiking trail, which is crucial because there are no big speeches in Kelly Reichardt movies for people to blab about their feelings, and if they tried they wouldn’t be able to put them into words anyway.
This is a film about behavior, with complicated emotions conveyed by actions and inferences that go tragically unnoticed. But look closely enough and you’ll see every one of these Certain Women (and some of their sad-sack men) reaching out, yearning to be heard. That’s why it breaks your heart.