Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women is based on a trio of short stories by Maile Meloy that previously had no connection (they were originally published in two different short story collections, Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It). In adapting them into a single screenplay, Reichardt has attempted to fit them together into a determined, but still loose assemblage that overlaps in terms of time, setting, and character and, ostensibly, theme, as each story focuses on a female protagonist struggling in ways both overt and subtle and whose life is held together only tenuously. Reichardt employs an intriguing structure, with each of the three stories following one after the other, after which we go back for brief epilogues that follow the same order.
All of the stories are set in Livingston, Montana, during the winter (a shift from Reichardt's previous films, which were all set in the Pacific Northwest). The first story involved a lawyer named Laura Wells (Laura Dern) who is representing a frustrated worker named Fuller (Jared Harris) who was injured on the job and took a quick settlement and now regrets it. She struggles to make him understand that there are no legal options left, a fate he refuses to accept, eventually devolving to a desperate ploy that finds Laura having to play hostage negotiator. The protagonist of the second story is Gina (Michelle Williams), a wife and mother whose energies are focused on building a new house, for which she hopes to use a pile of stone that used to be a schoolhouse that sits on the property of a lonely older man named Albert (RenÃ© Auberjonois). We have already seen Gina's husband Ryan (James Le Gros) leaving an afternoon sexual rendezvous with Laura, so we know all is not well at home, and we also see quickly that her relationship with her teenage daughter is deeply strained. The third-and best-story involves an unnamed ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) who strikes up a friendship with Elizabeth Travis (Kristen Stewart), an overworked law student who has taken a night job teaching a class on educational law four hours from where she lives.
Reichardt (Meek's Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy) is a great filmmaker whose primary gift is her feel for character, time, and the crushing weight of things both spoken and unspoken, and if Certain Women is one of her more uneven efforts, it is primarily because the stories themselves vary in quality. Her previous films were all focused on a single, direct, often misleadingly simple narrative, and the shift to a multi-story anthology format, while allowing her to explore different character arcs within a single film, also scatters the film's focus. The opening story with Laura Dern is the most conventionally engaging, as it features the most dialogue and a clear build-up to a suspenseful, albeit unconventional climax. The middle story featuring Michelle Williams is easily the weakest, as its narrative sensibility is so diluted and ambiguous that it's hard to tell what's really at stake. The third story, though, ranks among Reichardt's best work; it is a small masterpiece of minimalist storytelling with intense emotional impact. Lily Gladstone, the least known of the film's quartet of actresses, conveys a poignant sense of emotional depth and solitude, and the obviousness of her unspoken yearning toward Kristen Stewart's Elizabeth, who is hardly facile, but is nevertheless caught up in the rush of her life, is deeply moving. The use of silence to convey unspoken (or perhaps unspeakable) desire in this section of the film transcends the simplicity of the set-up and elevates it to something profoundly universal.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection / IFC Films
Overall Rating: (3)
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