Background: Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (Spine #893) adapts three short stories from writer Maile Meloy to create an understated yet powerful examination of isolation and loneliness in the cinematically overlooked wilds of rural Montana. It is Reichardt’s first movie in the Collection.
Story: In the outskirts of Montana, the wanting lives of three women are tested: frustrated lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) gets called in by the police to help defuse a hostage situation when one of her disabled clients named Fuller (Jared Harris) holds up the offices of the company that cheated him of worker’s comp following an accident; the unhappily married Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) tries to buy locally sourced sandstone from a dying old man named Albert (René Auberjonois) with which to build a dream-house with her distant—and unfaithful—husband Ryan (James Le Gros) and her disaffected daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier); lonely ranch hand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) accidentally stumbles across a possible human connection when she spontaneously attends an educational law course being held by young lawyer Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart).
The Film: She had left Oregon for Montana looking for a new landscape. And off in those endless prairies and towering mountains long forgotten by a cinema that had abandoned the myth-making magic of the Western, she found what she was looking for. It was Livingston, a small town of barely 7,000 people in a land where the wind blew so hard it kept most people away. It was here that the idea for a film clicked into place. She would take three unrelated short stories from Maile Meloy, that great native Montanan writer, and create a triptych. Though they would all focus on women, she didn’t envision it as a “feminist” film, per say. But the film world being the film world, it was immediately heralded as such. And though much could be said of its dressing down of subtle misogyny and female dissatisfaction in a world that tries to do most of their thinking for them, she had much more in mind. Her film would be one of intense loneliness and separation. It would linger not in bold moments of action and climactic denouements. Instead it would occupy the small pebbles of daily discontentment, the microscopic gasps of angst and fear and sadness and doubt that accumulate over lifetimes into stultifying miasmas of desperation and destitution. An armed man takes another man hostage, but there’s no violence, no tension. A marriage slowly breaks down, but there are no tears, no canned drama. And a chance at happiness is dashed and splintered, but there are no explosive breakdowns, no crying in the rain. Watching Certain Women, one senses that it couldn’t have happened anywhere outside of Livingston, a land where even the mountain air itself seemed gray and washed out. Kelly Reichardt was satisfied: she had found her landscape.
But did she find the right stories? Certain Women’s greatest strength is its bold embrace of deliberate anti-climax: none of the stories begin or end where stories typically would. But the problem is that such stories require appropriate interior drama to justify such narrative subversions. Only of the three stories truly provides it. The first starring Dern is fine enough—of the three stories it’s the most explicitly feminist with its examination of a lawyer who isn’t taken seriously by her male clients until her male colleagues give identical second opinions. And with its sudden transformation into a hostage drama one momentarily gets tricked into thinking that the deliberately slow and measured pacing of the film was merely a red herring. But it ends suddenly on an introspective, unresolved note, reminding us that Reichardt has more on her mind than Hollywood pyrotechnics. However, the second story following Williams is so slight and insignificant one wonders why Reichardt included it in the first place. Williams goes to an old man, convinces him to sell her his sandstone so she can build a house with it, and she drives away. End of story. In an interview Reichardt claims that this story makes more sense if you imagine Williams to be some slick Californian trying to snatch a piece of “authentic Montana” for her yuppie vacation home, but there’s not enough evident in the film itself to justify this.
It is the third story that lands with deafening power. Both Gladstone and Stewart are revelations, Gladstone as a blue-collar laborer long accustomed to empty winters next to mountains so white they blind the eyes, Stewart as a slightly frumpy, slightly exhausted young woman completely shorn of movie star veneer. When Gladstone starts reaching out to Stewart after randomly attending her law class, we see less a sexual interest—although there is enough of that to inspire legitimate LGBTQ+ analysis—and more of a fumbling attempt to make simple human contact by someone so used to loneliness that emotional connection sears like a hot wire. We all know it’s destined to fail. But it’s in how it fails, or rather how it fails to even take off, that’s so extraordinary.
The Supplements: The Criterion release of Certain Women is incredibly barebones. It’s so barebones, in fact, that the Blu-ray lists the trailer as an actual special feature! There’s an insert essay and three interviews with Reichardt, Meloy, and executive producer Todd Haynes which when combined barely limp to 45 minutes in length. But that’s it. There’s no reason why Criterion couldn’t at the very least include the three Meloy stories, if not in the insert booklet than as a menu feature where you could scroll through the text.
Overall: There’s no arguing that Certain Women has moments of incredible power. But the film itself can be greatly uneven. Maybe if Reichardt had chosen two different short stories to accompany the Gladstone/Stewart one she could have a film to rival the best being made in American independent cinema. But don’t let that turn you off from giving this film a try. The Criterion release may be too sparse to justify a purchase, but it’s definitely worth a rental if you’re looking for something off the beaten path, whether emotionally, stylistically, or geographically. That’s one thing nobody can deny Reichardt: Livingston is a town that demands to be filmed.
Film Grade: B-
Criterion Grade: C