Writer/director Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women bears the burden of being a small indie drama with A-list stars, boasting a cast that includes Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and Michelle Williams in the title roles. Luckily for the film, and the audience, Certain Women more than justifies itself as a serious argument for the beauty of the small and intimate drama and the importance of female-driven filmmaking.
Certain Women is based on short stories by Maile Meloy, and so takes the form of three loosely connected vignettes set in neighboring communities across Montana. Laura (Laura Dern) is a lawyer dealing with the unstable Fuller (Jared Harris), upset over a workers’ compensation settlement. Married couple Gina and Ryan Lewis (Michelle Williams and James Le Gros) attempt to convince Albert (Rene Auberjonois) to sell them a cache of sandstone they want to build their new house. Ranch hand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) forms a tentative relationship with Beth (Kristen Stewart), a lawyer teaching a night class in school law at the local high school.
Buried beneath the relative simplicity of the narratives is the quiet human drama of people seeking some kind of emotional and physical connection. The first two vignettes are connected primarily by locale and the involvement with the same man: Gina’s husband is having an affair with Laura, in a scene at the beginning of the film. Later, Jamie travels into town to find Beth, stopping by Laura’s law office to inquire after her. These small intersections form the tapestry of Certain Women, the connectivity of lives that otherwise have little to do with each other.
Human connection, and the lack thereof, is the central conceit of the otherwise episodic narrative, linking the vignettes thematically. Physical and spiritual loneliness is the center of each woman’s life. Their search for connection is always tentative, as though they’re reaching out but are not entirely able to touch another person. This tentativeness comes into play as things of apparently small importance take on significance. The possession of a load of sandstone exhibits the strain of a marriage, the stroking of a dog mimics the caress of a man, a random choice at a crossroads leads to heartbreak. Yet, there is no epic tragedy here; just the quiet tragedies of everyday life.
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The silences of Certain Women are more important than the sparse dialogue. Desire, hope, need – these all remain unspoken save by look, the emotions played, not always clearly, across the faces of the actresses. It’s the connectivity of small things that matters – an element most clearly delineated nearing the end of the film in a conversation between Laura and Fuller about the importance of receiving mail.
The forbidding Montana landscape is as much a character as anyone else in Certain Women. The film revels in the starkness of Montana in the winter, dark mountains looming over the open, empty roads and fields. The intimate connection of the land and the people who live on it further develops the sense of isolation from other human beings. Physical isolation and scope interacts with emotional distance. The cinematography makes the land appear at once beautiful and desolate. The people blend with the landscape, their winter clothes of browns and tans melding with the frozen ground, the brown grass, and the tan and speckled horses.
The difficulty with episodic narratives like Certain Women is that there’s usually one vignette that seems weaker than the others. In Certain Women, that vignette belongs to Michelle Williams, playing Gina, the most sparsely drawn of the female characters. Too much time is spent on developing the narrative of the sandstone, and not enough is spent on its importance to Gina, or what it means to obtain it. The weirdness of the vignette – which opens with Gina running through the forest and then pausing to smoke a cigarette—first distracts the audience into trying to puzzle out what is going on. Gina’s husband’s apparent affair with Laura is likewise never elucidated, unfortunately leaving a plot thread hanging in the air without clarifying the fundamental importance of it.
Despite the weakness of Gina’s section of the film, there’s no doubt that every single actor in Certain Women manages to do much with sparse narrative, to depict a whole wealth of human emotion within a very small space. It is to the actors’ credit that each character is made both intimate and mysterious. We feel that we know these women, though so much about them remains fundamentally unknowable. Audience connection to characters without overt emotional revelation is a difficult thing to accomplish in film, but Reichardt’s exceptional writing and directing succeeds where lesser directors might have failed.
Certain Women does not boast of star turns, despite being so laden with stars. It makes female narrative its focus, allowing the depth of human emotion and human experience to filter through the experience of femininity. Reichardt’s asked her actresses to be human, accessible, real, and they do not disappoint. They find their connection, not to each other but to the audience, in portraying their stories as both intimate and universal.
Certain Women more than justifies itself as a serious argument for the beauty of the small and intimate drama and the importance of female-driven filmmaking.