Set in around the gorgeously desolate burg of Livingston, Montana, director Kelly Reichardt introduces us to four intelligent women in flux.
Commercial success has never been – and hopefully never will be – important to Kelly Reichardt. She’s a purist – although some might say masochist – who doesn’t want to be shown the money; she wants to be shown a good story, preferably one about women existing outside the mainstream. And so it is with “Certain Women,” her triptych based on the writings of Harvard grad Maile Meloy.
Set in around the gorgeously desolate burg of Livingston, Montana, Reichardt (“Meek’s Cutoff,” “Wendy and Lucy”) introduces us to four intelligent women in flux. They’re lonely, misunderstood and flailing futilely at human connection. Life has not at all turned out as they’d planned. One is divorced, another is being cheated on, and the other two are awash in isolation. You just want to give them a hug. But they don’t want your sympathy; they want your respect.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to thee. It wasn’t Reichardt’s intent, but her movie could not have arrived at a more opportune time, as one of our sad presidential candidates whines and tweets about how stupid, ugly and fat he thinks women are. He fails to see them as anything more than a vessel for sexual gratification. And so it is with Reichardt’s overtly dismissed characters.
One, Laura Wells (played with sad-eyed rage by Laura Dern) is an attorney whose self-worth is at DEFCON 5. Her “afternoon delight” with her married lover (James LeGros) is anything but delightful. Her clingy, wimpy client (“Mad Men’s” Jared Harris) begs her to help him with his workman’s comp case, but ignores everything she advises because she’s not a man. At least she’s better off than Gina (Reichardt muse Michelle Williams), whose husband (LeGros again) is a lump on a log and their teenage daughter a putz. The only thing keeping Gina engaged is the prospect of the new home her family is building in the Montana wilderness.
Reichardt, as is her style, s-l-o-w-l-y introduces us to Laura and Gina in two 20-minute tales that test your patience. Neither woman is what you’d call intriguing, but then we don’t really have much time to know them, either. Not to worry. Those are just warm-ups for the main event, which is the devastatingly moving bid for connection made between a disaffected attorney (Kristen Stewart, awesome) and one of the students (Lily Gladstone) in her night-school class on education law. Both women are lonely and distant, but they connect after class, making idle chat at a local diner as they dance around their physical attraction.
Their twice-a-week get-togethers prove more meaningful to one than the other, gradually leading to the film’s most powerful scene. It’s a rare display of emotion, something Reichardt bullishly avoids – which is probably why it registers so deeply. But the beauty of “Certain Women” is in the subtle details, like watching Gladstone’s ranch hand Jaime doing her daily chores amid a deafening silence on the pure and lovely snow-covered range. Abetted by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, Reichardt envelops you in one breath-taking scene after another, but never enough to distract from her characters.
It’s an impressive work, but you’re also left lamenting why she didn’t just dedicate the entire movie to Jamie’s offbeat relationship with Elizabeth, which already comprises roughly an hour of “Certain Women’s” 105 minutes. They are the characters who most attract you, engage you and haunt you for days after. They are the film’s salvation and ultimately our most precious reward.
CERTAIN WOMEN (R for some language.) Cast includes Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, James LeGros, Rene Auberjonois, Jared Harris and Lily Gladstone. Grade: B