“It is about moments of connecting and not connecting”: Kelly Reichardt on Certain Women

The old pioneer ethics of fortitude and hard work drive the trio of contemporary tales that make up 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. From our March 2017 issue.

29 February 2024

By So Mayer

Certain Women (2016)
Sight and Sound

The first thing you see in Kelly Reichardt’s sixth feature Certain Women is a train cutting across the frame, bringing with it long histories of cinema (stretching back to the Lumière brothers) and something freshly urgent: a hint of the stories to come, of the small towns and ranches of the rural Midwest, people working to stay afloat, and working to connect. 

“I drive cross-country a lot and almost anywhere you are, you find the sound of trains,” Reichardt notes. “My family originally went to Miami to work on the first trains down there, but even where I am now in New York, there’s a train that goes by my apartment. Trains are still alive and well. They’re built into the tradition of the western, but in the Pacific Northwest there’s still kids who ride trains. That brings back images of the Depression in the 1920s and 30s, so it brings with it an idea of who is living on the margins.”

Certain Women opens as if the train on which unemployed, broke Wendy (Michelle Williams) leaves Wendy and Lucy (2008), Reichardt’s third feature, has come back down the track – bringing Williams with it once more, to turn in her third luminous lead performance for Reichardt. She plays Gina, one of the ‘certain women’ Reichardt found in the work of Maile Meloy, adapting three of the writer’s stories from two collections, Half in Love (2002) and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (2009), the titles of which hint at the rare ambiguity and orneriness afforded their characters. 

Meloy’s writing drew Reichardt east from Oregon, where she had shot her four previous features (her first, 1994’s River of Grass was made in Florida) into Montana. “Maile’s stories were so specifically Montana, even though I’ve read she didn’t have Montana specifically in mind,” Reichardt says. “But her Montana-ness is in there, whether the stories are set in Montana or not.” The film conjures with both what could be called that Montana of the mind, in its references to the western from the opening train to the horse ranch on which the third story is set, and the living 21st-century Montana of local radio, lawyers and Lycra. 

Williams’s first appearance, wearing bright, high-performance running gear, is startling: not just because it indicates a switch from the opening story, whose protagonist Laura (Laura Dern) is a taupe-clad lawyer disappointed in life and love, but for its note of urban modernity. Gina is brightly at odds with the pace of life in Livingston, and unaware that her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) is having an affair with Laura. She hopes that by acquiring a heap of sandstone blocks – which were once part of the first white settlers’ schoolhouse – she will make certain of her marriage and family by building a summer house outside town.

Kelly Reichardt filming Certain Women (2016)

Her encounter with Albert (René Auberjonois), who owns the stone, is at the centre of the film, and pivotal to the development of its themes of listening and communicating. Nervy, forthcoming Gina initially flounders in conversation with the taciturn, solitary Albert – neither of them helped by Ryan’s unsupportive, tone-deaf obfuscations. Eventually Gina and Albert find a way to understand each other, when they listen together to the voice of a quail. He phrases its call as “How are ya?”, finally able to articulate, indirectly, what it is this lonely, proud man longs to hear from his neighbours.

Such shifting patterns of sound – and silence – are central to the storytelling in Certain Women. As well as enthusing about the archive where she located the train sounds for the film – necessary because she and sound recordist Paul Maritsas “were shooting in one of the windiest places in America, so the trains were hard to record” – Reichardt describes a class she teaches in which she asks her students to listen to the barroom scene in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) in the dark. 

“Without having seen the film, the students draw a floorplan of the bar, marking who is sitting where in the room, what the weather is, and so on,” she explains, “and just from the sound they can draw a really specific scene about the textures of the space. It was so great that I finally got to work with [McCabe’s] René Auberjonois: he’s such a fantastic character, that bartender. I’ve listened to that voice so much [in class], it was weird to have it come from my headset [during shooting].” Reichardt’s softly spoken films, in which characters are often alone in long periods of listening silence, could be read as the attentive inverse of Altman’s love of the garrulous: two approaches to sounding out the same questions about American space.

Auberjonois’s presence as guardian of the sandstone is just one trace that makes Montana’s colonial – and precolonial – history palpable in Certain Women. As in her Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Reichardt is subtly busting myths about how the West was won and whether it was indeed a victory. There, Williams played Emily Tetherow, a pioneer whose narrative Reichardt and screenwriter Jon Raymond composited from historical women’s trail diaries. 

Emily teams up with an unnamed captive Native American (Crow actor Rod Rondeaux) against the Tetherow party’s trail guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who is based on the historical figure who gave his name to the route into Oregon that completed the European settlement of the West. Meek, in Reichardt’s account, is not only a bully but incompetent, and it is the Native American who leads the Tetherow party to water in the desert, enabling – with a bitter irony he acknowledges – the ‘cutoff’ that will assist the European dispossession and genocide of Native Americans. 

Certain Women offers just as startling a reversal of norms, being one of the few contemporary films by a white American director to include a Native American character, who is the protagonist of the film’s third story.

The rancher, a male character in Meloy’s original story, is played by mixed Blackfeet actor Lily Gladstone, who told OUT magazine that she reads the character as “exploring her gender identity, where she fits on this nonbinary spectrum”. The rancher – as her name suggests – works on a ranch, on the margins way outside town, but connected to it by road. 

Certain Women (2016)

When, on a particularly cold night, she rides into town by horse rather than truck, in order to romance her crush, a young and very tired lawyer called Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart), the film’s play with margins and centre, its delicate web of connections and transportations – between people as well as across the western genre – is heartbreakingly tangible. 

Elizabeth, a working-poor law graduate struggling with her student debt, has been assigned to teach night school for local teachers. The rancher, having crashed the first class, takes Elizabeth to the local diner after each session. It is only with the proposition of a horse ride, however, that the former’s romantic feelings become clear. Elizabeth doesn’t return the following week.

Making Elizabeth’s journey in reverse, the rancher drives all night to Livingston to find her, but happens upon Laura instead as she searches the town’s legal offices, so that the first and third stories briefly, electrically, touch. After being rejected by Elizabeth, the rancher – unslept, dazed, resolute in solitude – drives back to the ranch. Somewhere outside town, her truck drifts, slowly, off the road and into a field: the quietest broken heart in cinema. Afterwards, the film returns to Laura’s story, then Gina’s, offering brief codas that show how they are moving on. When the film comes back to the rancher, she is repeating the chores in the stable where we first met her. Gladstone holds not only sympathy, but also the screen, in what is essentially a two-hander with Stewart, one of the most celebrated young actors, and her story feels like the logical and powerful end of the trilogy.

Gladstone, who won the LA Film Critics Association award for Best Supporting Actress and a Gotham Awards Breakthrough Actor nomination, came to the film via the growing Native American film industry. Reichardt heard about the actor via the casting director who had found Rondeaux, and through a conversation with Seminole-Muscogee filmmaker Sterlin Harjo. For Reichardt, the rancher’s story was central to forming a portrait of Montana. “I was amazed to see the influence of Native American culture everywhere: there were hotel lobbies full of images and sculptures in the square, but it was just the aesthetic. There were no brown faces anywhere. I would ask people in town and they would say ‘You have to go out to the reservation.’ Like, really. So I looked.”

The film’s look defies Reichardt’s description of the appropriated and commodified aesthetic, even subtly skewering it when Gina describes her search for “native stone, railroad ties, things which fit in” for the construction of her summer house. Sandstone plays a key role as one of a series of pale shades in the film that we first notice with Ryan’s observation that Laura’s sweater, which she optimistically calls “peach” is in fact “taupe”. Whiteness – or, really, beigeness – is made visible through this chain of associations, a pale background against which the rancher is cast. Reichardt noted that the ranch was one of the last locations to fall into place, and that its colour was crucial: “The film got financed faster than I was anticipating. I was leaving Los Angeles to fly home to New York, and my producer called to say we had the money, and I had to go to Montana. So we were scouting. I still didn’t have the place for one of the Laura scenes, or the ranch. I can’t believe the luck of me and my scout coming on the ranch, after we’d been looking for ages: I wanted a beige ranch. I can’t believe we found it.”

It was while location-scouting in Montana that Reichardt heard about and cast Gladstone. “But then Lily had to take horse lessons. Kristen had more horse experience than Lily. I realised that was my bias: ‘You’re a Native American actress, what do you mean you don’t know how to ride a horse?’” Reichardt notes that she “didn’t know anything about ranching” either. “We were into the ranch life by that point so I wanted to shoot that story. We shot with a really small crew so as not to scare the horses – just Lily and four or five of us. I don’t know why I thought that would be easiest. It was four or five below zero [-18º C] the whole time we were there, and we were shooting on film. The poor camera-loaders had a really hard time.”

Certain Women (2016)

The demanding conditions may have complicated some matters – whether loading film or recording trains – but also produces an observational, embodied sense of place: for example, the sound of the rancher’s boots squeaking painfully through the icy snow on the wintry expanses of the ranch is a magical piece of field recording that transmits the precise sensation of extreme cold to the viewer’s body. Reichardt adds that she uses “sounds almost as a musical background, the sounds of commerce and the highway, the working sounds of the city as well as the winter birds”. These blend with a soundtrack that ends with ‘Boats to Build’, an ironic title for landlocked Montana, by Texas country singer Guy Clark, whose voice is described by Rolling Stone as a “warm, ragged coo”.

Clark died in May 2016, and his music – along with the character of Albert – lends the film an air of the last of the Old West, even as Gladstone, as the rancher, shades in an older West still. The frictions between the cowboy and the highway, or desert silences and digital noise, run throughout the film, from the moment that the local radio’s weather report (the DJ notes it’s cold enough to freeze the water in dog dishes) comes in over the sound of the train’s whistle. 

Giving both speakers equal weight, the film outlines the different struggles that people have to be heard, and the value of intense listening. Before the train is either audible or visible, the film starts with the sound of bells jingling: suggestive of a horse and cart, its source only becomes clear midway through the first story when Laura, leaving the personal injury lawyer’s office, stops to watch pow-wow dancers, wearing jingling ceremonial outfits, at the mall. 

Her story centres not on her sexual relationship with Ryan, but her work relationship with a former client, Fuller (Jared Harris), who wants to pursue a personal injury case against a former employer despite her advice that he has no case. When Fuller finally takes no for an answer from another lawyer in Billings (Guy Boyd), Laura muses resignedly down the phone to Ryan about what it would be like to be a man, and to be listened to and taken seriously. When Fuller takes Laura hostage in an office building late at night, along with Samoan security guard Amituana (Joshua T. Fonokalafi), it becomes clear that Fuller also longs to be listened to and taken seriously, that his claim is an attempt to create a conversation about work and loneliness and poverty that Laura has not heard.

Certain Women (2016)


In a dark open-plan office, there sit a white working-class man, a white middle-class woman and a working-class nonwhite immigrant (who, having Samoan royal lineage, outranks them both). Both men have guns, and Laura is wearing a bullet-proof jacket; police officers wait outside – but the unfolding scene and its conclusion are unexpected. Contra Anton Chekhov, no guns go off. Laura draws Fuller into conversation, listens up and talks him down. But she doesn’t buy his rebel-with-a-cause story and let him drive away free. In the coda, she visits him in prison where an equilibrium – or even friendship – has been reached, because they are connected.

Laura’s story begins as a love/sex story, one that – in its seedy afternoon hotel room tryst – strategically quotes the opening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Laura will drive away from Ryan and find herself caught up in another man’s psychodrama, but we’re not in the Bates Motel anymore. Throughout the first story, we see Laura as a lawyer not a lover; in the second, we’re aware of Gina as both an estate agent (who is her husband’s boss) and a mother. In the third story, the rancher and Elizabeth are, in a real sense, divided by work: by class, but also by the exhaustion and precarity of servicing debt through short-term contracts in the vast, isolating spaces of Montana. 

Where love fails in a cold climate, work takes up the reins. Laura and Elizabeth are both competent, thoughtful lawyers, but it is in the chores on the ranch – perhaps because they are the first scenes Reichardt shot – that the film finds itself. “Working with animals, even working with a dog, keeps actors focused,” Reichardt observes. “They constantly have something that they have to be responding to, interacting with, and it keeps the scene alive in a certain way.” 

Like the trains that stitch the continent together, animals are pervasive in Reichardt’s work, including the rancher’s horses and dog, the final living thing we see in the film. Then the end credits begin with the dedication “For Lucy” – Reichardt’s late dog. “I had to have her in all my early films because she was such a destructive dog,” she remembers. “I had to bring her on set because I didn’t know what else to do with her. So then there she was, and Wendy and Lucy grew from that. But animals are probably part of what drew me to the stories in Certain Women. The film is about moments of connecting and not connecting; our connection with animals can be quite a big thing.” 

Certain in both senses – specific and decided – Reichardt’s work binds us through its network of connections: virtual train lines that link across geography, species, gender, ethnicity, class and time to remind us that we work with one another, and that keeps us alive.