Film of the week: Certain Women, Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist Montana triptych

Pitch-perfect performances, muted cinematography and austere direction make these three stories of tired, tender women emotionally compelling without a moment of melodrama.

Kate Stables
Updated:

from our March 2017 issue

Kristen Stewart as rookie lawyer Beth

Kristen Stewart as rookie lawyer Beth

Beyond a sliding stable door, a muted but ravishing Montana vista fills the frame with horizontal ribbons of snowy peaks, blue-grey ranges, frosted plains and weathered fencing. In front of it, a lone ranch hand drops off feed for horses, immersed in her daily tasks.

Winding women’s quiet stories into north-western landscapes traditionally given over by film to men and their noisy Manifest Destiny is Kelly Reichardt’s speciality. But rather than the homeless roamers of Wendy and Lucy (2008) or Meek’s Cutoff (2010), the stoical, struggling heroines of this triptych of lightly linked narratives are rooted in town or ranch: lawyer Laura (Laura Dern) is dogged by her troublesome client Fuller, his hostage-taking dropping her directly into his revenge plans; businesswoman Gina (Michelle Williams) plots the perfect rural house to underpin her wavering marriage, seeking authentic local stones from an elderly neighbour; and a rancher (Lily Gladstone) gets a crush on night-school teacher Beth (Kristen Stewart), a frazzled rookie lawyer worn down by working two jobs.

Around the four sharply observed character studies, the landscape lingers without pressing in, to be picked over by acquisitive Gina, worked on by the rancher or traversed by the exhausted Beth. Visible through every window and car journey, the Montana mountains preside over everything. Shot by long-time Reichardt collaborator Christopher Blauvelt in 16mm, giving grain and subtle texture to the film’s slate-and-beige palette, they have a painterly look that’s never overworked. There’s a hint of Milton Avery’s blocky landscapes about them, as Reichardt has acknowledged. Looming large, they add to the film’s discreet echoes of north-western history, successive inhabitants signalled by the costumed Native Americans dancing in the mall or Gina’s townie hunger for the original sandstone blocks that were once the frontier schoolhouse. A meticulous natural soundscape underlines all of this, its outdoor silences embroidered almost imperceptibly with river splashes, birdsong, wind in the trees and the distant hum of a car.

Laura Dern as lawyer Laura

Laura Dern as lawyer Laura

Reichardt is a master minimalist whose style suits the short story form. Laura’s and the rancher’s tales in particular are delicate, pared-back miniatures that deliver both character and story skilfully. The three tales are taken from Maile Meloy’s collections Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It and Half in Love, nimbly feminised, and connected so lightly that they just brush past one another; it’s utterly unlike Altman or Crash’s heavily interwoven plots. But their short span, coupled with Reichardt’s austere storytelling, allows us less time to trace the links between character and setting.

This only becomes an issue in Gina’s section, where the sliver of story and Williams’s deliciously tetchy and contained performance feel slightly ambiguous. Is this cheated-on wife simmering with suppressed rage? Or is she a selfish yuppie pushing others aside in pursuit of her ‘authentic’ Montana home? Or perhaps both at once. By contrast, Laura’s experience with Jared Harris’s despairing, life-swiped client is a beautifully sketched mix of frustration and sympathy, expressed in exasperated meetings and a slyly comic hostage standoff where the police cheerfully pitch Laura into danger.

What the triptych structure nicely amplifies, however, are the women’s plights and their tiredness, as they struggle with debt or loneliness, unhappy marriage or male neediness. With minimalism as an organising principle, characterisation is pieced together from scant dialogue, worn-in clothes or fleeting expressions. Reichardt shoots her actresses’ faces with the same lingering attention that she gives to the landscape – Dern long-suffering and game, Williams pursed and irritable, and newcomer Gladstone shyly eating up a bone-weary Stewart with her eyes.

Lily Gladstone as rancher Jamie

Lily Gladstone as rancher Jamie

This last story is the film’s best, a slender handful of scenes creating an emotionally engaging tale of infatuation, with Gladstone’s standout performance speaking volumes with a bitten lip or darting glance. It’s quite an achievement, in a film where the playing is uniformly excellent. Threaded through with the chores that the rancher undertakes daily (reminiscent of the fascination with the work of women pioneers in Meek’s Cutoff), it’s a pitch-perfect portrait of loneliness and longing. Gladstone and Stewart infuse their characters with an exquisite awkwardness, which melts only during a late-night horse ride, a rare tender moment.

In all three stories, traditional ‘women’s film’ territory is traversed (infidelity, a disintegrating marriage, a near-miss love). But just as she made an innovative no-action western of Meek’s Cutoff, here Reichardt has created a ‘women’s film’ that never tips into melodrama. Her stories pierce the viewer without resorting to violence, marital showdowns or any kind of over-dramatic gesture. Spare but wide-ranging in its concerns, quietly played but emotionally powerful, Certain Women’s whispers are more penetrating than most film’s shouts.

 

Watch a clip from Certain Women

 

In the March 2017 issue of Sight & Sound

A woman’s work

The old pioneer ethics of fortitude and hard work drive the trio of contemporary tales that make up Kelly Reichardt’s Montana-set Certain Women, a film that’s sharply attuned to life on the margins as it outlines its characters’ determined efforts to forge a connection. By Sophie Mayer.

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and in the February 2017 issue of Sight & Sound

“Risk-taking is essential”

Michelle Williams’s extraordinary ability to bring raw emotion to psychologically knotty dramas has assured her place as one of the finest actors of her generation. By Isabel Stevens.

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  • Sight & Sound: the March 2017 issue

    Sight & Sound: the March 2017 issue

    Moonlight – a beacon of hope in troubled times. Plus Viola Davis, Toni Erdmann, Certain Women, 20th Century Women, The Fits, Prevenge, Werner...

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