By: Jessica Goddard
A movie packed with subtlety and nuance, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women both wrenches the heart and flexes one’s critical capacities. Do we have sympathy for this character because we authentically suspect they’re a good person in spite of their actions, or do we desperately want them to be a good person because we feel so deeply sorry for them?
Based on short stories by Maile Meloy, the audience is presented with a handful of complicated women in complicated situations, reacting to them in complicated ways. The stakes are high for almost everyone, yet we’re constantly reminded that this is all contained in middle-of-nowhere Montana, and that no matter what inner battles these characters may be fighting, the sun will still rise and set silently over that Montana landscape with indifference.
It’s hard to tell whether the women at the centre of the three barely-connected episodes that make up this film are actually struggling to communicate in their lives, or have totally resigned themselves to the understanding that there’s no use. That’s what’s at the core of all these women’s stories – they could say more, but they won’t. Either because they’re too good, or they’re too tired, or they’re too shy.
The men in this film are despondent as well, in some cases more than the women we focus on. But there’s a quiet, tolerant strength to the women where the men consistently fall short. The men here have vices, they have tempers, they make bad choices. Mysteriously, Certain Women treats its men charitably, but its women with a certain ambiguity.
Does Laura (Laura Dern) the small town lawyer understand the stakes in her dealings with her hopeless client Fuller? Does Gina (Michelle Williams), the discouraged wife and mother, care about senile retiree Albert in the slightest? Does Beth (Kristen Stewart) the part-time law instructor know that she’s stringing along Jamie (Lily Gladstone), the impossibly lonely ranch hand? Are any of these women actually doing their best, or are they guided by a profound – though relatable and thus, forgivable – selfishness?
Part of why it’s hard to answer these questions with any confidence is because of the power of the performances given by this cast. The people we see on screen are real and familiar. These people surprise you, but they don’t shock you. Their humanity practically rolls out of the screen like you’re watching a stage play – particularly Gladstone’s Jamie.
Certain Women is sewn together artfully and empathetically, which makes its observations all the more sad in how precise and recognizable they are. While it can be sleepily-paced at times, the effect this has on the multiple narratives is worth it. When there is movement, you’re alert to it and engaged. But this movie is not contemplative to the point of exhaustion. There are some genuine edge-of-your-seat moments within this piece, and the direction and performances by the cast make this a highly memorable and impacting drama.
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Jessica Goddard: @TheJGod