Review: Certain Women

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Stars: Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Lily Gladstone

Certain Women is Kelly Reichardt’s sixth feature and by this humble writer’s count at least three of her previous films are five-star masterpieces. Not one of them is a dud. She is one of America’s great living filmmakers, yet she has yet to have anything resembling a ‘breakthrough’ hit, certainly in the commonly perceived mainstream definition of the term. She continues to be a name beloved in indie and arthouse circles seemingly exclusively, despite working with star name actors like Jesse Eisenberg or Michelle Williams (this film marks their third collaboration).

Her latest feature – as good as anything she’s previously put her name to – is unlikely to alter this course as it finds Reichardt working neatly within the borders of her established style (at least aesthetically and tonally). The pacing is exquisitely unhurried and the American midwest is presented, again, as a place populated with dramas occurring in a minor key.  Reichardt’s cinema shuns gusto or trite sensationalism, instead rooting out the honesty of the everyday. She works closely with authors, adapting short stories (most frequently those of Jon Raymond but on this occasion Maile Meloy), presenting meticulous and empathic cinema that compels thanks to her shrewd removal of noisy distractions.

Certain Women does break into new territory for Reichardt. This is her first portmanteau film; delivering three slightly interconnected stories within one  sitting. The ‘certain’ women of the title are Laura Dern’s patient and beleaguered lawyer Laura, calmly navigating the self-entitled demands of her client, Jared Harris, the aforementioned Williams as Gina, a home owner looking to procure sandstone from an elderly relative for a modest gardening project, and Kristen Stewart (who’s gone from tweenage starlet to major indie presence) as Elizabeth Travis, a woman whose torturous commute to teach an evening class must surely prove self-defeating. There’s also The Rancher played by Lily Gladstone (an amazing find), whose open affection for Travis is as heartbreaking as Travis’ apparent inability to see it.

All three stories find Reichardt offering us women trying to progress with their lives in the face of absurdity. For Travis it’s that ridiculous commute; for Laura the frustrating way in which her word requires masculine affirmation in order to be taken seriously. Gina’s story in the middle of the film feels comparatively thin as it less obviously mutates an established genre, but it too provides the kind of minutiae that Reichardt’s cinema is so generous with, supported as Williams is by a fine little turn from Rene Auberjonois as the aging Albert. Certain Women salutes little victories; the ways in which we doggedly get by in spite of everything. It sees hope in hope. The tempo is steady and one can readily imagine a thousand other stories taking place outside of frame, their collective matrix making up the lifeblood of the day-to-day America rarely afforded screen time for it’s perceived banality.

Not that Reichardt’s examples are banal. Laura, for instance, finds herself in the middle of an unlikely hostage situation – a development which feels naturally at odds with the filmmaker’s grounded sensibility. But it’s a ‘thriller’ unlike any other; hopeless, ironic and heartrending for how pathetic it is. It’s like the moment at the end of the first season of The Wire when the SWAT teams get ready to break down a door while the detectives would rather just knock and the criminals are sat waiting and unarmed. Preconceived notions of drama feel preposterous (see Harris trumping up a list of demands because, hell, isn’t that what’s expected?). Reichardt deconstructs the notion that this situation might be anything more volatile than an inconvenience.

The gem of the three stories is the last however, a two-hander between Stewart and Gladstone that represents one of modern cinema’s more beautiful brief encounters. Having accustomed the audience to her calmed rhythm of filmmaking, Reichardt turns her attention to the romance genre, deploying the same method of deconstruction, only here the unfiltered honesty and bare bones awkwardness creates something of quietly forceful substance. I can’t remember the last time I found myself rooting for a would-be couple so quickly. The economy of it is what continues to impress as Certain Women settles.

I’ve had a few months with this film now (I was fortunate enough to see it at the tail end of 2016). Reichardt’s films are almost like exhibits first-time through; so deliberate is everything, so immaculately judged. You watch with breath held. Its only afterward as you exhale that the spaces in the film take their turn and fill with oxygen. It makes them reverent experiences in the moment and expanding joys afterward. Films for the head and the heart equally. Elizabeth Travis and The Rancher suggest the miracles of more fanciful cinema have the potential to exist in Reichardt’s more measured terrain too; that life and art imitate one another, and every variation of art has it’s place.

This is a feminist film and it’s a humanist one, slotting into the larger tapestry of it’s creator’s body of work – an expanding depiction of the American heartland that doesn’t condescend or beat it’s breast. It simply carries on, day-by-day, inch by inch. It doesn’t showboat about it, but in its modesty lies its very brilliance. It’s not surprising these films don’t cross over; the world at large is far too impatient and selfish for that. In Reichardt’s cinema any moment has the potential to reveal something of intimate beauty.

It won’t revel in it, but you can.

Score:  5

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