Kelly Reichardt’s films are among the most delicate in contemporary cinema.
Kelly Reichardt’s films are among the most delicate in contemporary cinema. Her stories are spartan to the point of opacity, often giving the impression that they have no real beginning, and, occasionally, as in the purgatorial conclusions of Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves, that there is no ending at all. As such, Certain Women, Reichardt’s latest and perhaps best feature, is the perfect vehicle for the director. It consists not of one narrative but three distinct stories, linked only by the faintest, most off-handed connections to avoid the tedious puzzle-making of network movies. The only concrete bridge between the stories, besides their shared Montana setting, can be found in the title: these are simply tales of individual women, each dealing with her own conflicts in her own way.
With so little dramatic motivation to propel the film, focus swiftly pulls onto the naturalistic performances of the actors. The film opens, for example, with Laura (Laura Dern) laying in bed after a lunchtime tryst, a look of sleepy contentment on her face as she and her paramour get dressed. Surrounded by oak furniture and a cast-iron bed frame that turn the room into a gold rush-era parlor, Laura is so comfortable that she heads back to work at a law office with her blouse half-untucked. Dern puts so much slack into Laura’s body language that the lawyer’s abrupt stiffening at the appearance of her client, Fulle (Jared Harris), says everything about her relationship to the man well before he begins to take up her time with continued complaints about his doomed workman’s comp claim.
This subtle illustration of emotional wavelengths carries over to the other segments of the film. In the middle section, breadwinning wife Gina (Michelle Williams) makes preparations to build a countryside getaway, seeking authenticity while undermining it with attempts to make her family retreat easier on her. For example, she regularly meets with an elderly local, Albert (René Auberjonis), to negotiate for the sandstone on his land to give her own property a true northwestern aesthetic, but she also plans to rip up the natural vegetation to plant low-maintenance desert flora. Interactions between the two are predicated on Gina’s ingratiating but wolfish smile and Albert’s weary befuddlement, his powerlessness to resist either the passage of time or his new neighbor’s business skills.
Gina’s behavior, with its subtextual veins of class warfare and ageist exploitation, offers the richest opportunities for analysis, but it is the final act, of a one-sided crush between a rancher, Jamie (Lily Gladstone), and her new teacher at an adult education complex, Beth (Kristen Stewart). Immediately drawn to Beth, Jamie attempts to forge a bond with her, and their most common after-school meetup is at a local diner, where one can sense the wealth disparity between the two in the way that Beth casually orders a buffet of food, asking for dessert halfway through a burger and promptly pushing her entreé aside to dig into a sundae as Jamie meekly nurses a free cup of water. The scene oddly recalls a similar visualization of class strata in Jaws, wherein Hooper scarfed snacks all day long while Quint frugally nibbled at crackers and even pocketed those he did not finish. Still, Jamie is clearly interested in the woman, and Gladstone’s performance is one of the most achingly real portraits of unrequited affection and introverted attempts at connection: Jamie shifts uncomfortably and nervously chuckles when she hears just how awkward she sounds. Jamie buzzes with a combination of eagerness and self-consciousness when introducing Beth to things like horseback riding, and the conclusion of their story, a desperate road trip resulting in a horribly awkward meeting between two introverts, one of whom is just realizing what she has done and the other realizing why that person has done it, is skin-crawling in its relatable depiction of longing.
The distinct tones and narrative aims of each segment denies any easy summation of the work as a whole, but the resolute focus on the reactions and behaviors of the women in each story creates a throughline for how they each relate to their surroundings. Fuller’s rage eventually spills out into an embarrassing hostage situation at his former place of work, but the film never pivots to his point of view, instead remaining with Laura as her mixture of exasperation, discomfort and genuine sympathy reaches its apex in talking him down from his quixotic, useless outburst. It is telling that the scenario concludes not with the resolution of Fuller’s crime but in Laura’s reaction to it, her face an inscrutable mixture of pity and relief. Gina is not merely some appropriative villain, however willing she is to exploit an old man’s resignation and possibly unsound judgment. When she hears of a bad fall he suffered, she expresses remorse, even if her murmured “poor Albert” contains a trace hint of satisfaction that she has one more thing to use against him. Reichardt uses blatant visual cues to highlight aspects of her characters—the aforementioned splendor of Laura’s room, the trendy tracksuit that Gina wears in a region where clothes are well-worn and thickly woven—only to sidestep easy interpretations in the realism of their longing, be it for escape from work or safety or, in Jamie’s case, connection.
Men have prominent roles in the film, and at times their casual sexism hangs in the periphery: Fuller refuses to accept Laura’s opinion of his case’s chances until a male colleague echoes what she’s been saying for months, and Albert at one point asks Gina’s husband (James Le Gros) if his wife works for him when it is the other way around. But Reichardt does not linger on these moments, understanding that to define the women against the men is to still make them subordinate to them. These women, however much they must deal with others, define themselves on their own terms, even if those terms are ambiguous and filled with doubt. The macro view is never on display in Reichardt’s films, political as so many are. In narrowing her scope even further with these three stories, the director fully taps into the complexity, the irresolution of her characters’ lives. That no attempt is made to render these certain women as universal to the human experience, that they retain the specificity of their class, their occupations, their desires, only makes them more real. They exist for no one’s convenience or understanding, least of all their own.