Review: ‘Certain Women’

The edit shapes the film.

Director Kelly Reichardt is perhaps known best for Wendy and Lucy, from 2008, which stars Michelle Williams as a hand-to-mouth drifter searching for her dog. Like Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt’s newest film, Certain Women, was adapted from short fiction. But it is the way Certain Women tracks together three stories, and ultimately truncates them by stripping away any sense of depth or proximity—favoring landscapes over interiority—that turns the four women’s narratives into a scant catalogue.

Certain Women works best when it lets its characters stumble over each other and around the worlds they inhabit, when austere direction is momentarily undone. There’s lawyer Laura’s (Laura Dern) sad stroll through a Billings mall; unpopular mom and businesswoman Gina’s (Michelle Williams) tenuous hold on an old man named Albert, from whom she hopes to buy several blocks of sandstone that sit unused on his yard; and finally, a rancher’s (Lily Gladstone) missed connection with her night-school teacher, which results in the former’s own encounter with an unfamiliar city—and herself. These moments of proximity and uncertainty are the film’s most moving moments, whereas every shot of these women looking off into the land, driving down a long road, lost in their heads and distant, seem to be part of an emotional script. A connection is signaled, but ultimately lost.

There’s an obvious aim to the kind of dragged-out harshness that Reichardt affects not only in this film, but in her others. Stripping away dialogue, action, objects, and explanations allows for a kind of privacy. We do not invade any of these women’s worlds—we follow them but don’t intrude. This kind of work is obviously in the lineage of the late director Chantal Akerman, whom Reichardt cited as a major influence for all her films when she introduced Certain Women at the New York Film Festival Monday night. In moments I was reminded of News From Home and Je Tu Il Elle.

Reichardt actually hones in on a sense of privacy central to Akerman’s films—and finally accesses part of what makes them so great, and so affecting even in their sustained minimalism—in the last sequence, with the rancher and night-school teacher. The camera, instead of distancing the rancher and editing out action, sense, and interiority, allows her to determine her own place on the screen. She is a searcher who’s looking for love, a connection, some hold on the world—not a greater context, but a deeper one. In that way, we watch her come up against the limitations of her world (she appears to live on a ranch alone in the isolated, nearly empty Belfry, Montana) and challenge them. She attends a night-school class on a whim, and becomes entranced with the teacher, Beth (Kristen Stewart), a rookie lawyer who drives 4 hours every evening to Belfry before driving 4 hours back only to wake up early for her day job. Beth is looking for a way out of her fatigue, and the rancher is looking for a way out of her loneliness, so she jumps at the chance to take Beth to a nearby diner each night after class. When Beth finally stops making the trip, the rancher finally makes a romantic overture—not a wordy expression of love or desperate dash across a city, but a steady, relentless search in Beth’s city.

In a film with three of the best working actors right now (Dern, Williams, and Stewart), its star is actually the newcomer, Lily Gladstone, a native actress of mixed heritage who was raised on a reservation in Montana, where she studied acting at the University of Montana. (Her film credits include Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P. and Alex and Andrew Smith’s Winter in the Blood.) Her performance didn’t appear stripped down or edited but expansive and expressive. The rancher falls in love in waves, is hesitant but in rapture. We see it all on Gladstone’s face, which manages to affect both a reservedness and a generosity that you can’t take your eyes off of. It’s her (the rancher’s) film that I would’ve loved to see for the full 100 minutes. A slow search, an intimate privacy, and a cascading sense of desire—close up.

Header image courtesy of New Zealand International Film Festival.

Cassie da Costa is a writer who focuses on moving image and performance. She's based in Brooklyn and works as a member of The New Yorker's editorial staff while also producing the magazine's video podcast, The Front Row, featuring film critic Richard Brody.

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