Review: Certain Women (Reichardt, 2016) – Sundance 2016


You came to watch Certain Women for the cast (headliners: Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Laura Dern), for director Kelly Reichardt, or even, if you’re a bibliophile, for Maile Meloy. And you were not disappointed. (Unless you were the four elderly people I met on the shuttle who kept exclaiming, “We were waiting for the stories to connect, but they didn’t! The stories never connected!” “No, they didn’t really,” I agreed. “Except–” “Yeah, at the end, when she was in the lawyer’s office–” “And Laura Dern goes up the steps with her dog.” “Yeah! But that was it. Did you think they were going to connect?” “I–I…” Giving me a fuller look: “Did you like the movie?” Me, hemming and hawing, but finally admitting: “I did.” Them: “Well, the stories never connected.” Later, we all waited in line for The Birth of a Nation but didn’t get in.)

Reichardt, a visiting professor at Bard College, is an old Sundance hand (at least two of her previous films, Old Joy and Meek’s Cutoff, played in past years). Her other relationships seem to run deep, too. Certain Women marks her third collaboration with Michelle Williams, and the first film since 2006 that she hasn’t made using Jonathan Raymond‘s short stories or screenplays. But Reichardt hasn’t strayed far from good storytelling, this time adapting three stories from Montana author Maile Meloy’s collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.

The first is told from the perspective of Laura Wells (Dern), a lawyer in Livingston whose client in a workplace injury complaint refuses to acknowledge that he has no case against his negligent former employer. Laura finally takes her client, Fuller (Jared Harris), to seek another opinion. When the second lawyer confirms Laura’s judgment, Fuller finally resigns himself to the futility of legal proceedings. But without recourse to the law, the former carpenter, who can no longer work and feels that his life has been ruined, grows increasingly desperate. Matters come to a head one evening when Laura is called in to defuse a potentially violent situation.

In the second story, a young family is in the process of constructing their dream house in a quiet spot by the river. Or, rather, it is the dream house of mother and wife Gina (Kalispell, MT, native Michelle Williams), whose vision is to create a homestead out of natural local materials. To that end, she and her husband (James Le Gros) make repeated visits to Albert (Rene Auberjonois), an old man living alone in the area, with the aim of persuading him to sell them his pile of historical sandstone. Emotional undercurrents abound as Gina manages her discontent about her home life–the lack of support from her more easy-going husband, her teenage daughter’s outbursts of resentment–and her fierce desire for a perfect house.

The third is a love story set in rural Montana. Seasonal hand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) leads a lonely existence on the ranch, where she lives by herself in bare surroundings. One evening she drives into town and sees a group of people enter a building. Out of curiosity, she follows them and finds herself sitting down to a class on education law taught by recent law school graduate Beth Travis (Stewart). Beth, confusing this town with another, had signed up to teach the class without realizing that it was a five-hour drive away from Livingston, where she works as a junior lawyer in a local law firm. The two young women, both from humble backgrounds, strike up a friendship over meals after class, with shy, tomboy Jamie listening rapt as Beth chatters nervously about her life.

In an earlier review, I had referred to Certain Women as a picture in which “nothing happens.” That description isn’t quite true, especially for the Laura/Fuller story, which builds to a rather dramatic climax. But maybe the reason I had that impression is that one feels in this film that all the real action is internal. The movie is quieter than it seems. Reichardt knows how to give a scene space, space to fill with all the characters’ unspoken thoughts and histories and stifled actions. In that space, every detail becomes important–the timing of speech, the physical posture and arrangement of bodies, the expressions that flicker on faces as the characters flare and dim, facts that are given the time to grow to their fullest meaning.

Luckily, Reichardt has a tremendous cast to support her. Jared Williams, an English actor who does well as a tormented Montanan workman, and Lily Gladstone, as the sweet, hopeful Jamie, give the most outstanding performances, while Michelle Williams is her usual superb self. Only Kristin Stewart seems a little off, her manner too studied, the timing not quite there.

Despite being chastised by Reichardt for trying to film the Q&A (which is why I don’t have it available here), the screening of Certain Women was one of the highlights of my festival experience. Whatever Reichardt’s personal foibles–she also publicly shamed my neighbor for sexism when she misheard his question–I’ll say one thing for her: she sure knows how to make a movie.