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Certain Women

Review and Opinions by Cameron Wolff

Poster+for+Certain+Women.+Image+courtesy+of+ComingSoon.
Poster for Certain Women. Image courtesy of ComingSoon.

Poster for Certain Women. Image courtesy of ComingSoon.

Poster for Certain Women. Image courtesy of ComingSoon.

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       The stable doors slide aside, and the screeching sound of aging, splintered wood pierce the movement. Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a lonely ranch hand, stares out at the still Montana winter. She is a small silhouette among the horses that pass by her. We see what Jamie sees: a desolate winter farmland, with horses aimlessly roaming the snow-coated hills.

        I felt like Jamie, staring into the bleak Montana wilderness, as I watched Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women: I couldn’t take my eyes off of it, but I felt nothing from the experience. The film is a near-gem that is irredeemably weakened by its lack of cohesion and scatterbrain themes. Much like Jamie, I developed a feeling of hollowness and confusion that only strengthened as the film pressed on.

Michelle Williams in Certain Women. Image courtesy of Variety.

Michelle Williams in Certain Women. Image courtesy of Variety.

        Certain Women gives brief snapshots of the lives of three Montana women. The first is Laura Wells (Laura Dern), a lawyer struggling with an unhinged client’s workplace injury lawsuit. The film shifts focus to a second woman, Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams), as she builds a home for her family. The film then focuses on  Jamie, a ranch hand who stumbles into a night class and meets Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart), a struggling teacher who may cure her of her pervasive loneliness.

        The film opens on a 5 minute long shot of a train sweeping across the screen. The camera is static, and the credits are simply displayed on the screen. This is an example of Kelly Reichardt’s technical mastery, as she frames shots and holds them for so long that they become unforgettable. However, this style lends a dry and almost academic air to the entire film. Even during Jamie and Beth Travis’ melancholy love story, the audience isn’t involved: they’re studying. It seems that the only possible way to find any entertainment in this interminable film is to analyze Reichardt’s directing, for it is almost all that is offered.

           Reichardt’s talents lie in capturing small moments in the lives of her strong characters with impressive detail, but she fails to give them any sort of depth or meaning through character interaction. Communication is shallow and lacking any insight, whether between Jamie and the woman she may love, Laura and her client, or Gina and her husband. A prime example of this is early on in the film, during a conversation between Laura and the man she is having an affair with. They sit in bed, smiling at each other with a cold politeness, as they discuss the color of Laura’s sweater. It is an offhand moment that could have revealed something about the characters and their relationship, yet the script script fails to provide any further understanding.

          The screenplay is adapted from three short stories by the American author Maile Meloy, and this is where the film’s issues stem from. These are obviously meant to be separate stories, but unfortunately Reichardt tampers with their separateness. Characters wander into each other’s lives for no apparent reason, perhaps because Reichardt believed it would add complexity. However,

Lily Gladstone in Certain Women. Image Courtesy of Slate.

Lily Gladstone in Certain Women. Image Courtesy of Slate.

instead of a sprawling inter-connectedness between the stories, there are only contrived situations that serve no purpose to the characters or the plot of the film.

        While the script ultimately fails, the actresses at the center of Certain Women do their absolute best with what they have been handed. Laura Dern bustles about in a hurried frenzy, exasperated yet emotive to everything and everyone around her.  She both calms her client and berates him, unafraid to speak the truth and show her law expertise and experience. Michelle Williams, while given hardly any time to develop her character, crafts a nuanced performance of a woman that is hopeful yet filled with doubt. She displays tenderness to her cheating husband, but a hardly concealed desire for answers and justice.

      Worth individual praise and acclaim is Lily Gladstone as Jamie, a performance that is the saving grace of this otherwise dragging film. Gladstone is astonishingly emotive as Jamie, her role being light on words but heavy with the most effective facial expressions on film. Look at Gladstone during her final scene with Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart). She seems self-conscious, but feels entirely natural as she awkwardly carries on through the scene. After Jamie is rejected by her love, she isn’t emotional. She saunters back to her truck, giving a few last glances before drifting back into the Montana wilderness. She captures the devastation felt in a one- sided love affair. It feels like a performance from a non-actor in the very best way. We feel that we are watching a human being.

        Certain Women highlights great actresses playing strong women, but it is so frustratingly vague that its purpose is just about anyone’s guess. Reichardt has crafted a film that requires self-negotiation on the viewer’s part, an internal convincing that the film they have just seen is a masterpiece of deliberate pacing and ambiguity, and not just a tremendous and frustrating bore. I don’t watch movies because I want to see stunning technicality; I appreciate it and admire it, but it isn’t what makes a film that will remain with you throughout the rest of your day, possibly even longer. A filmmaker needs to convey something to the audience, whether that be a strong emotion or an illuminating theme. There needs to be an element of surprise or discovery, a change within the audience. A great film requires humanity and the emotions and thoughts that go with it. Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women is well-crafted but fails to connect with an audience in any of these meaningful ways. Instead, all we see is what Jamie sees: a barren winter landscape, as far as the eye can see.

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