Certain Women

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday October 18, 2016

Michelle Williams stars in 'Certain Women'
Michelle Williams stars in 'Certain Women'  

Director Kelly Reichardt's films have a certain look and feel to them, something that's partly a result of manner and partly a result of aesthetic. Her films unspool at an unforced pace; her editing tends to stick on odd moments, like a sweater sleeve caught on a nail, and pull you up short. Sometimes she'll frame a shot in a strange or even an ugly manner, as though to insist that you put aside the movie-watching autopilot and pay attention.

All those stylistic markers are present in "Certain Women," a film that's essentially a trio of short stories on film -- stories linked tenuously by, in one case, a cheating husband; in another case, a coincidental shared line of work; and, in all cases, the setting, which shifts around the state of Montana, touching upon Billings, landing for a third of its running time in the town of Belfry, but mostly centered around the city of Livingston.

The structure makes sense, given that the film is based on the short stories of Melanie Meloy, and also given the underlying thematic connections. In the first third, a lawyer named Laura Wells (Laura Dern) has to deal with a client (Jared Harris) who refuses to accept that his legal case in a worker's comp claim cannot proceed any further -- until, that is, he hears the same thing from a male lawyer. The client's intransigence then boils over into hostage-taking rage, and it's Laura who must don a bulletproof vest and wade into a dangerous situation to talk him down and defuse the situation.

Michelle Williams plays another take-charge woman -- and, perhaps importantly, another blonde -- in the film's second part, which follows a married couple, Gina and Ryan Lewis (Williams plays the former and James LeGros the latter), as they make their rounds through the Montana countryside. They have a teenage daughter who can hardly be bothered to give them the time of day, but that's not their only focus; the Lewises are building a new home in the country, and because Gina wants it be an "authentic" house they stop by to visit an elderly friend named Albert (Rene Auberjonois) to see if they can convince him to part with a heap of sandstone blocks that's been sitting unused in his yard for half a century.

The blocks are part of an earlier time -- they once were part of a schoolhouse built by pioneers -- and giving them up is, for Albert, akin to releasing the final vestige of his youthful dreams. Though none of this is spelled out in overly explicit terms, you can see it written in Gina's face, and in her stride: If the men she knows aren't going to make things happen, she'll do it herself.

The first and second parts of the film have a certain underlying prickliness, but the third part is meant to be poignant -- and perhaps tries a little too hard to achieve that effect. It centers around a young woman named Jamie (Lily Gladstone) who's spending the winter tending to the horses on a ranch. When she gets bored, Jamie wanders into town and sits in on a class on school law being taught by a freshly-minted attorney named Beth (Kristen Stewart).

Both young women are, in a sense, outsiders; Beth is so ill at ease that when she introduces herself to the class int ethic honored way she starts to write "Elizabeth" on the chalkboard before she backtracks and, in a moment of forced accessibility, writes "Beth" instead. Jamie is so out of the habit of human contact that when she finds herself instantly smitten with Beth she makes Tuesday and Thursday nights in her classroom the anchor points of her week. But though the two women share a certain lonesome affect, it might not be the case that they are lonesome for the same reasons. Jamie figures it's worth a try to see if she can't manage to find a way for she and Beth to connect.

In some ways, this segment plays the most naturalistically. People who don't fit in are something of a staple in Reichert's work, from the girl-and-her-dog drama "Wendy and Lucy" to the stilted effort two friends put into trying to reconnect in "Old Joy." The landscape plays a significant part in all three parts, but it's in the third segment that the vast, flat expanses of the land -- with snow-dusted mountains in the far, far distance -- underscores the film's emotional tone to best effect. Christopher Blauvelt's cinematography does justice to the location shoot, but also captures the chilly, often ramshackle interiors (a stable, a canvas tent, a run-down hotel) in all their rustic glory.

Some cinemagoers might get itchy, though; not only does Reichert like to let her movies proceed at a leisurely pace, but she often focuses in on awkward moments, where she love to linger as though posing a challenge to her characters and to us. Human situations are often difficult; does that excuse us for looking away as often as we do? Or is there something there worth seeing, if we can stand to stay with it? That's a question you'll have to answer for yourself.


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.