VARIETY:Kelly Reichardt’s wonderful triptych of female character studies confirms her status as the quietest of great American filmmakers.
Few contemporary filmmakers can do quite as much with quiet as Kelly Reichardt. Superficially empty soundscapes are layered so intricately with the rustle of nature, the brooding of weather and the breathing of preoccupied people that her films come to seem positively noisy to a sympathetic ear. So it is in the marvelous “Certain Women,” where the storytelling has a similarly latent impact. Separating the spare narratives of several disparate Montana women — a morally stressed lawyer, a nest-building mother, a lonely ranch hand — waiting indefinitely for their worlds to fall into place, it’s a peculiarly riveting examination of the lives lived when even their owners aren’t looking. Crafted with Reichardt’s customary calico-textured beauty and expertly performed by such hand-picked ensemble players as Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams and Laura Dern, this unapologetically open-ended slow burn probably won’t convert many viewers to Reichardt’s softly-softly sensibility, but it’s among her richest, most refined works.
Like a number of Reichardt’s previous films, “Certain Women” has its roots in the short-story format — one naturally conducive to her flair for teasing larger lives and deeper longings out of passing everyday incidents. Her literary inspiration this time is Montana-based author Maile Meloy, with Reichardt’s elegantly apportioned script drawn from her stories “Tome,” “Native Sandstone” and “Travis B.” The director’s chosen title, however, is at once calculatedly vague and mournfully ironic. Read one way, “Certain Women” implies a kind of unnamed randomness to Reichardt’s chosen female subjects, as if any number of adjacent women’s lives might have been equally worthy of the film’s attention. Read another, it’s perhaps a gentle joke at the expense of characters for whom certainty is in achingly short supply: It’s hardly a spoiler to say that none of the pic’s delicate strands hinges on anything like a drastic dramatic decision.
Viewers accustomed to the knotty “Short Cuts” school of multiple short-story adaptation may take a while to acclimatize to the film’s patient, clean-edged structure, which opts neither for explicit chaptering nor for intricate braiding of the three stories in question. Revelation-concerned narrative splicing has become such a familiar feature of the U.S. independent filmmaking scene that it’s positively bracing to see Reichardt — also acting, with graceful discernment, as her own editor — unfold her mini-dramas one at a time, letting the sometimes faint connections between them emerge with little fanfare, revisiting their principal characters only in the final reels. If Paul Haggis’s “Crash” literalized the idea of storytelling as automotive collision, “Certain Women” prefers to let its vehicles pass each other with an acknowledging wave — apt enough for a film in which human contact doesn’t come easily to the yearning, inward-looking women at its center.
To describe the film’s individual segments on paper is not to do them many favors, even when they include such notionally hefty events as an armed hostage situation — as staged by Reichardt, returning to her trademark tender humanism after the icy genre stylings of “Night Moves,” surely the lowest-key such standoff in cinematic history. The first story centers on small-town lawyer Laura (Dern), introduced in the postcoital stages of an afternoon tryst with a married man — whose identity lends passive emotional complexity to a later section. Focus shifts to a legal case that has become something of a thorn in her side, as construction laborer Fuller (Jared Harris, devastatingly ragged) obstinately pursues an injury claim that a legal technicality prevents him from winning. Taking little heed of her counsel — because she’s a woman, Laura concludes with the weariness of experience — he implicates her in a more violent course of action.
Cut to Gina (Williams), discontentedly wrapping up a rural camping weekend with her husband, Ryan (James Le Gros), and perma-sullen teenage daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier). Fatigued by tetchy family life, she pours her efforts into constructing a symbol of idealized domestic unity: a woodland weekend cottage that she intends to build, with preciously modish integrity, entirely from repurposed native materials. Yet this ostensibly noble goal entails a degree of selfish manipulation, as she and Ryan press on doddery family friend (Albert) to sell them the reserve of vintage sandstone on his property.
Drily satirizing the opportunistic exploitation of tradition in the American heartland, Gina’s story is the most coolly oblique of the three. What follows is the most bittersweetly open-hearted, as a nameless Native American horse rancher (the revelatory Lily Gladstone) aimlessly seeks a personal connection at an adult education center. Stumbling by chance into a class on educational law for teachers, she develops an intense but innocent fascination with its young tutor, Beth (Stewart), a socially awkward law graduate who lives many towns over. The two develop a mutually bemused rapport over post-class diner meals, though when Beth abruptly quits the job, the terms of their new, ambiguously platonic romance become harder to parse.
There are no tidily concrete thematic ties to be found between these slender, piquant slices of life, though all touch on the generalities of human alienation and solitude for which E.M. Forster issued the poetic prescription to “only connect.” As with Reichardt’s more streamlined miniatures, regional detail accounts for much of the film’s lingering resonance, as her characters are molded by (and, in some cases, rail against) the landscape they inhabit. “Certain Women” is the director’s fifth film to be set against the pregnant skies and cornbread-colored grasslands of America’s Northwest — painted with misty iridescence on 16mm by Reichardt’s reliably brilliant cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt — and there’s a not-wholly-rueful sense here of indigenous tradition and etiquette passing into history. All the women here, however put-upon, are independent in ways that defy their staid surroundings.
Though this is arguably the most illustrious ensemble Reichardt has ever had to hand, the pic’s performance style is as casually organic and democratic as in any of her more scrappily cast early projects. There’s complete onscreen parity, for example, between a relative newcomer like Gladstone and a megawatt star like Stewart — both unobtrusively superb — while Williams, in her third collaboration with Reichardt, underplays with terse modesty. Playing most recognizably to a star persona is Dern, if only because said persona has been built on the kind of creased, empathetic decency that makes her a Reichardt natural.
Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart star in Kelly Reichardt’s latest study in northerly melancholy.
After her comparatively pacey last feature, the eco-themed thriller Night Moves, indie auteur Kelly Reichardt returns to a more typically low and slow register with the elegantly wrought Certain Women. Although her screenplay is adapted from short stories by Maile Meloy, and set in and around pokey-cozy Livingston, Montana, instead of the Pacific northwest stomping grounds she’s favored in the past, Reichardt successfully makes the material and setting her own. Her trademark attention to landscape, to the bonds between people and animals, and to how the human face can reveal so much when at rest are all present and correct.
Yet while there’s no doubt this is the work of a filmmaker entirely in command of her craft, there’s something a trifle academic and dry about the whole exercise, and slightly lacking in narrative cohesion given the nature of its origins. Unlike, say Robert Altman’s Short Cuts or other films adapted from collections, this feels like three discrete works laid alongside one another, like pictures in a gallery, not a triptych.
Still, Women features Reichardt’s starriest cast, with not just her muse Michelle Williams on board but also Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart, as well as outstanding discovery Lily Gladstone. Together, these women are certain to hold the attention of viewers at further festivals and in specialist distribution.
The opening tale trips lightly along on dainty feet. After an adulterous afternoon tryst with her married lover Ryan (James Le Gros), local Livingston lawyer Laura Wells (Dern) meets with her client, a carpenter named Fuller (Jared Harris). Fuller has hired Laura to help him get compensation for a workplace accident, a case he hasn’t any chance of winning. Laura has been trying to tell Fuller this for weeks, but he only seems to accept defeat when a male lawyer in a neighboring town assures him he’ll get no “tort time.” Even so, he still insists on trying one last desperate measure to prove he’s been hard done by, and Laura wearily comes to his rescue.
In the second, spikier chapter, Ryan turns out to be married to Gina (Williams), a hard, humorless woman with a smile like a drawer full of tiny knives, who has bought a plot of land in the area and plans to build a house there. Accompanied by their sulky teenage daughter (Sara Rodier), Gina and Ryan visit Albert (the great Rene Auberjonois), a fragile old man whose mind seems to be fading, in the hopes of talking him into selling them some native sandstone that’s been heaped in front of his house for years.
The best comes last with an exquisite tale of inchoate longing and miscommunication. An unnamed ranch hand (luminous newcomer Gladstone) spends her days caring for horses on a remote ranch, not another single human soul in sight. Even so, she has the horses for companionship, as well as a boisterous, scene-stealing Corgi cross. (As in other Reichardt films, the dogs have strong supporting roles here, and this one is also dedicated to the director’s longtime canine companion, the co-star of Wendy and Lucy.)
Seeing cars gathering late one night at the local school, the ranch hand investigates and finds it’s a class on education law being taught to the school teachers by recent law-school graduate Elizabeth (Stewart). She starts auditing Elizabeth’s classes each week, and they become friends of sorts, companionably sharing meals before Elizabeth makes the long drive back to Livingston. Barely able to articulate her feelings, the ranch hand seemingly develops a kind of girlish crush on the teacher, but her feelings can only find expression in longing looks and the closest she gets to Elizabeth physically is a shared ride on a horse.
If the characters here are often sparing with their words, or even withholding, the visuals speak volumes. Shot by Reichardt’s most steadfast collaborator, DoP Christopher Blauvelt on 16mm film, the graininess and deep focus of the cinematography suggest a living landscape that’s constantly in shimmer. The sounds we hear might be the babbling of a nearby river, the murmur of Jeff Grace’s understated soundtrack, or the rustling of some invisible book’s pages. Meanwhile, characters are often seen through glass or reflected in mirrors, underscoring the lack of direct connection, the oblique angles from which they observe each other. It’s no accident that the rawest emotional moment in the film is when the ranch hand and Elizabeth look directly into each other’s eyes in a car park, finally truly seeing each other for the first time.
THE GUARDIAN Kelly Reichardt had proven herself a master at slow-burning, melancholic dramas with Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff. She switched gears with the eco-themed thriller Night Moves: a relatively mainstream feature that moved at a faster pace than her preceding work. Her latest, Certain Women, an adaptation of short stories by Maile Meloy, sees Reichardt tackle a contemplative ensemble drama that recalls the solemn tone set by her earlier work.
Fittingly, it reunites her with her Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff muse, Michelle Williams, who plays one of the four women that populate the three interwoven vignettes set in and around Livingston, Montana.
The first opens with what seems like the end of an adulterous tryst between lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) and a gruff, handsome man named Ryan (James LeGros). Once at work, she’s surprised by a visit from her client, Fuller (Jared Harris), who’s seeking compensation for an office accident. Refusing to take Laura’s advice that he has no case, she agrees to bring Fuller to a male lawyer who offers the same counsel. Unable to accept defeat, Fuller takes matter into his own hands, bringing Laura along for the ride.
Ryan is revealed to be married to Gina (Williams), in the second and chilliest chapter. The pair, along with their bored teenage daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier), are camping near a plot of land on which the couple intent to build a house. On their way back to the city, the family make a stop to visit Albert (Rene Auberjonois), an old family friend, in an effort to persuade him to sell some vintage sandstone for use on their new venture, that he no longer has use for.
The third section is the most nakedly emotional of the trio, centring on a Native American horse rancher (the wonderfully expressive Lily Gladstone), who seems to have no human interaction in her life while caring for her horses on a remote ranch. That changes when she happens upon a class on education law in the nearest town, and takes an immediate liking to its instructor, Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart), an overworked law-school graduate who commutes a long distance for the job. Over a number of post-class diner meals the pair bond, with the unnamed ranch hand soon believing their connection to be a romantic one.
Like Reichardt’s directorial hand, the performances are understated across the board, but deeply felt. Gladstone conveys a heartbreaking sense of yearning, while never verbally stating as much. Dern and Williams, playing women who face sexism over the course of their two storylines, simmer under the surface with palpable anger. And Stewart continues to impress, following a revelatory performance in Clouds of Sils Maria, as a young woman seemingly oblivious to the effect she has others.
Together, they form an indelible portrait of independent women at odds with their rural surroundings.