Certain Women: Tough Choices in a Hard Land

Directed, written and edited by Kelly Reichardt
IFC Films, 107 minute, R (brief nudity, language)

If you've seen Brokeback Mountain or Wind River, you might suspect that though the Northern Rockies are a place of majesty and eye-popping beauty, they're mighty hard on human inhabitants. Delve into Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women and you'll be certain of it. This film loosely stitches three Maile Meloy short stories. I've not read Ms. Meloy, but what I saw on screen reminded me of Annie Proulx's Wyoming Stories transposed Montana.

The critic scores for this film were much higher (as in the 92% favorable category) than those of audiences (65-75%). I see its flaws, but I lean toward the critics on this one.  To appreciate it, you need to have patience. Certain Women is a very quiet film about people who feel small in a landscape that can be oppressively imposing. Distances are measured in hours, not miles; hulking peaks loom ominously before an unbroken chain of empty prairie and barren roads; and taking care is pretty basic: watch out for black ice, stock plenty of food in the freezer, choose a reliable vehicle over one that looks nice, and make sure the livestock has non-frozen water to drink. It's also not a place for loquacious pack humans; out there, a slow nod passes for a sermon. Not surprisingly, it's also a place that can wear you down, though it does so slowly and inexorably.

Certain Women interweaves the quiet dramas and traumas of four women (and several men). The first is Laura Wells (Laura Dern), a lawyer well aware that she's in a dead-end practice. She's stuck with creeping cynicism, ennui, and a client named Fuller (Jared Harris) that she can't help even though he was horribly cheated by an employer that ruined his vision and suckered into a lame settlement. Laura is basically running on autopilot—so much so that she is literally pushed into things she's not even sure she wishes to do.

Gina Lewis (Michele Williams) has command, energy, and verve to burn, but her life isn't so hot either. She might be outwardly powerful, but she can't handle silence or indifference. Her ineffectual (and philandering) husband has very little to say, rather like their daughter Guthrie, whose dislike of her mother is palpable. Gina's plan is to get a house built so the family can stop camping, and she has her eye on a pile of primo sandstone piled in the yard of an old man named Albert (RenĂ© Auberjonois—Star Trek's Odo). Gina's schemes excite her, but no one else. Albert's what everyone really fears: being aged, alone, and sliding into dementia.

The final tale involves another lawyer, novice Beth Travis (Kristin Stewart), who got roped into teaching a night law class in Belfry (population 218) twice a week, thinking it was another town, not one involving a four-hour drive each way from Livingston (a veritable 'city' at 7,200). Beth is so focused on her own misery and fear of failure that she hardly cares that no one in the class actually wants to study law; they just want to ask random questions. All, that is, except for young Jamie (Lila Gladstone), who seeks to befriend Travis. Jamie has a winter job—caring for horses in this remote chunk of Montana—and her attraction to Beth is deliciously ambiguous. Is it that Beth is exotic? That she represents Jamie's frustrated desire to educate herself? Or is she lonely and in love with Beth?

Some have called this a film about strong women, but I think such an assessment confuses hollowed out perseverance with efficacy. It also ignores parallels that portend fate, including the possibility that Beth and Gina are on the path to becoming Laura, or that Fulller and Lila could easily morph into Albert. My take is that Certain Women is an exploration of loneliness, yearning for connection, living with stillness, and wanting to tell the Universe, "I am here." The last of these smacks face-first into an outsized landscape that suggests that Montana doesn't give a damn. The sequences involving Jamie are almost painfully redundant as Reinhardt drives home the fact that a lot of people live according to set routines, not along paths to self-actualization. In a very understated way, Reichardt makes us ponder who is right. What makes us who we are, how we handle triumph, or how we deal with adversity? How do we live—basking in the exceptional, or doing honor to routine? What makes us human, and does it matter?

This film isn't for everyone. There is so little action that at times it's like photographs slowly coming to life. The transitions between character sketches are so ragged that it seems like three distinct short films—until threads tie stories together. Even then, those threads are so slender and mauve colored that the film's overall fabric frays. But the more I thought about this film, the more I liked it. It's a small film and I understand if you conclude it isn't your cup of tea. Whether or not you watch Uncertain Women, though, keep eyes peeled for Lila Gladstone. Hers is a subtle and nuanced performance that tops that of her more famed peers. She rightly won several independent film acting awards for the manner in which she says more in her silences than most can do in a soliloquy.  

Rob Weir

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