A trio of understated vignettes featuring some of the year's best female performances.
April 20, 2017
Early in Certain Women, lawyer Laura (Laura Dern) sits in a meeting with two men. One is a difficult client, Fuller (Jared Harris), who's trying to get worker's compensation despite the fact that Laura has spent the past eight months telling him that he has no case. The other is another lawyer she has asked to assess Fuller's prospects in the hopes that reality might finally sink in. Within seconds, it does. "Okay," Fuller replies meekly when he hears the news that Laura has already told him again and again. The fact that he'll quickly accept his fate from a man but not from a woman isn't lost on her.
In her sixth feature film, writer-director Kelly Reichardt gives Laura a sliver of time to vent her frustration, but it's just that: a sliver. She's soon driving Fuller home and listening to his complaints, and later that night, she's forced to get out of bed and head to his former place of employment after he takes a security guard hostage. Laura doesn't ever literally grit her teeth as she bears what life throws her way, but as she wears the weight of a lifetime spent living in men's shadows (and cleaning up their messes), you can be damn sure that that's how she's feeling inside.
The first of three loosely connected vignettes set in rural Montana, the first chapter in Certain Women may be brief, but it certainly leaves an impression on the audience. The same can be said of the subsequent segments, each of which unfolds in Reichardt's signature, understated way. The middle chapter tells the tale of Gina (Michelle Williams) and her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) as they attempt to secure a pile of sandstone from their elderly neighbour, while the third explores the unexpected connection that's formed when rancher Jamie (Lily Gladstone) wanders into a class on school law taught by Beth (Kristen Stewart).
Each part of the film focuses on different women in different scenarios, yet there's never any question that they form part of a complete package. The same tensions arise, even if they manifest in a variety of ways. So too do the same feelings simmer, ensuring that every masterfully-composed frame seethes with thoughts left unspoken but sentiments still made plain. Certain Women mightn't overflow with dialogue, but it says plenty.
That's Reichardt's modus operandi. Since making her debut with 1994's River of Grass, she has proven a patient but probing filmmaker, as subsequent efforts including Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves ably demonstrate. Whether she's lensing in on rugged terrain or weather-beaten faces, the act of looking is an empathetic and revelatory experience in her films. And fortunately, the cast of Certain Women is more than up to the scrutiny. Gazing at Dern, Williams, Stewart and the particularly entrancing Gladstone, we see entire stories unfold in looks and glances.