Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women Is a Quietly Powerful Study in Uncertainties

By
Kristen Stewart in Certain Women. Courtesy of FilmScience

In Certain Women, director Kelly Reichardt takes titanic emotions and frames them in un-titanic ways, here in long, seemingly uneventful shots. This is because: (a) her female protagonists tend, unlike men, to internalize their pain before taking rash action, and (b) Reichardt has styled herself against the bombastic male directors whose work so impresses Trump-like studio executives. Some of her shots do go on … and on … but her films have a cumulative power. You might ask, “What was that even about?” while on a deeper level you know.

For Certain Women, Reichardt has adapted several stories by Maile Meloy set in a remote town in Montana on the edge of winter: The light seems to dim and the cold to deepen as the film goes on. The protagonists pass one another but do not quite intersect, although the lawyer of the first segment, Laura Wells (Laura Dern), is first seen sleeping with the husband, Ryan (James Le Gros), of the main character of the second, Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams). Actually, they’re on different sides of the wide frame — she’s in bed, he’s in the bathroom — and are destined to remain apart. The rest of the story centers on a client of Laura’s named Fuller (Jared Harris), who was injured on the job but promptly signed away his right to sue for proper recompense. Fuller can’t quite get it through his head that he has no case — at least until Laura asks a male attorney to give him a second opinion. At that point, Fuller does what the occasional aggrieved male victim is known to do: get out his rifle.

This is not the sort of film to feature bloodbaths, only bold but essentially impotent gestures. The focus is on the lawyer, who has maintained a professional detachment, resisting her client’s efforts to get her to be emotionally engaged. It’s difficult to know what Reichardt wants us to make of this: Do we admire Laura for not becoming stereotypically maternal or root for her to soften and show the man a measure of sympathy and understanding? Perhaps there’s no right answer. Here’s what’s undebatable: Laura Dern should have parts like this in more movies. She’s one of the treasures of American films. After seeing Fuller in her office, she uses a lint roller on her blouse (she has also just come from her lover) and gazes out the window at the gray landscape, as if trying to put her messy emotions back in the bottle. But it’s no use. Even when attempting a cool mask of disinterest, no actor is quite so bedraggled — or transparent.

The middle section featuring Williams is the most nebulous. She and her husband are sleeping in a cold wood on land that will be the site of their future house. His affair is over; they are trying to reconnect. The story — such as it is — turns on the couple’s buying a pile of sandstone that was once an old schoolhouse from an elderly neighbor played by René Auberjonois. Williams (an essential presence in two other Reichardt movies) is more self-contained than Dern, but uses her stillness to express the same degree of longing. Again, we see a deeply lonely woman gaze at a deeply lonely man from a vantage of helplessness.

The third story follows Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a friendless Native American woman who looks after horses — and one evening, in search of contact, follows a group of people into a school. It turns out to be a night class, a course on the law and education taught by a young female lawyer, Beth (Kristen Stewart), who didn’t realize she’d have to travel four hours each way in darkness and snow. Recognizing a kindred lonely spirit, Jamie is smitten, and afterward takes Beth to a nearby diner. In Meloy’s story, the character is a man, but as a woman Jamie is even more moving, watching with undisguised delight as Beth eats a hamburger or grilled cheese sandwich, smiling as if she’d never heard someone so beautiful speak. She thinks they have a true connection — until one night Beth doesn’t return. The final moment between Jamie and Beth was so difficult that I had to look away — then forced myself back so as not to miss the remarkable play of emotions on Stewart’s face.

Certain Women turns out to be a study in women’s uncertainties, in the experience of pain that leads not to action but acceptance. It’s a slow go — but you get there.

*This article appears in the October 17, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.