“I just knew if I didn’t start driving I wasn’t going to see you again.”
It’s not often a film captures the feeling of great prose. And why should it? Film is a visual medium, and if watching a film truly felt like the experience of reading a book one might expect the experience to be distracting and questionable. But writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s quiet, chilly Certain Women does indeed invoke the feeling of pouring over a page, and it does so in a positive way. Reichardt is a filmmaker who understands how to command silence, and there are stretches of Certain Women when the characters stand silently in the frame, and you can almost hear a narrator describing every single thing on the screen, as if you were curled up with a book and picturing it all in your head.
Similar to how Robert Altman took the short stories of Raymond Carver and formed them into a narrative for Short-Cuts, Reichardt takes three stories by Maile Meloy and loosely connects them. They are stories about talking, and listening — and not listening. Set around the same Montana town, the three stories follow a group of women in their own unique situations. The first story follows lawyer Laura (Laura Dern) as she attempts to deal with an unruly client. The client, named Fuller (Jared Harris) is attempting to reap a windfall from worker’s comp lawsuit, but Laura keeps making it pretty clear that he doesn’t have a case. Yet Fuller only recognizes this fact after a male lawyer tells him pretty much the same exact thing Laura has been trying to tell him for months. From here things escalate into the most low-key hostage situation ever captured on film. This is a brief, but memorable, segment. Dern is an actress in a class of her own, and watching her navigate around the situation Harris’ character gets her into is engrossing.
The second story follows Gina (Michelle Williams) and her unfaithful husband Ryan (James LeGros). Ryan is building a house for Gina, possibly out of guilt, and the two trek off to pick up some sandstone from piled up on the property of Albert (Rene Auberjonois). Gina and Ryan drag their miserable, sullen daughter along for the ride, but she wants nothing more to get away from her mother. Gina and Ryan set about trying to talk Albert into letting them take away some of the sandstone, but it doesn’t go as smoothly as Gina would like. This segment is arguably the weakest of the bunch, but Williams, who previously worked with Reichardt on Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, is such an exceptional performer that the thin story work doesn’t matter.
The third story is the most absorbing. Lonely horse farm hand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) randomly sits in on a “school law” class. There she becomes enamored with the teacher, Beth (Kristen Stewart). Beth is unhappy with the gig — she has to drive four hours each way to get there and back — but the two women strike up something that’s not-quite-but-almost a friendship. After classes they head to a local diner where Beth talks and Jamie listens. There’s a sweet sadness prevailing throughout this segment, heightened by Gladstone’s tender performance — a performance comprised mostly of facial expressions and listening. Stewart remains one of the most interesting actresses of this, or any, generation, and her nervous, almost manic, energy contrasts perfectly with Gladstone’s quietness. Reichardt connects these three tales in fascinating, subtle ways, and taken as a whole Certain Women is one of the year’s most striking, unique films.