Mark Reviews Movies

Certain Women


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Cast: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, Kristen Stewart, Jared Harris, James Le Gros, Rene Auberjonois, John Getz, Edelen McWilliams, Sara Rodier

MPAA Rating: R (for some language)

Running Time: 1:47

Release Date: 10/14/16 (limited); 10/21/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 20, 2016

Beyond their sex and their location within these United States, the three central characters in Certain Women are mostly united by the way other people routinely underestimate them. That's the way of the world for women, writer/director Kelly Reichardt's movie suggests, and it's a shame this well-acted and precisely staged movie never comes together in a way that makes a forceful—or even noticeable—argument.

The three, individual stories of this trio of women play out one after the other, before each one comes back around at the end to provide their separate resolutions. There's a coincidental connection between the three tales. They all take place in Montana, and the main character in one story happens to pass by the central figure in another at one point. Neither notices, because why would they? The two women are as different as they can be: One is a fairly successful attorney, and the other does day work on a ranch in a small town that's in the middle of nowhere—even by Montana standards.

As for the other woman, whose story takes up the middle third of the movie, she is looking to build a new home for her family—her husband and daughter—and possibly operates a small business (It's never explicitly stated but seems as if that's the deal). The other two women are single, although the lawyer is involved in a fling that's heading toward its end and the rancher appears to have found a potential partner.

The differences, of course, are vital, because part of the quiet and almost inaudible point that Reichardt is making is that, despite the unique experiences that these women have, there are certain experiences and setbacks that they share. That's especially true, we see here, for women who know what they want and/or know what needs to be done.

For example, Laura Wells (Laura Dern), the lawyer, has a troublesome client named Fuller (Jared Harris). He insists that he has a case against his former employer for neglect that led to him being injured on the job. For her part, she insists that he doesn't have a case, because he agreed to a settlement after the injury. Fuller doesn't believe her, and he's still convinced that he could sue until another attorney, who happens to be a man, tells him the exact same thing that Laura has been saying for months.

In the second story, Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) is living with her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) and daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier) in a tent in the forest. She's not happy with the way Ryan undermines her as a parent, and that streak of being undermined continues when she tries to convince Albert (Rene Auberjonois), an old man who realizes his time is almost up, to sell her some blocks of sandstone in his front yard. Even though Gina is the one doing the negotiating, Albert's eyes and responses are always aimed at Ryan.

The final tale, which happens to be the movie's fullest and self-contained (since its themes have little to do with the ones of the other two stories), follows Jamie (Lily Gladstone), the cowgirl on the ranch. While driving around town, she happens across a full parking lot and decides to check out what's happening. She finds herself in a class about education law taught by Beth (Kristen Stewart), an up-and-coming attorney from a town four hours away. Beth asks the accidental student if there's place in town where she can eat before making the long drive home. Jamie joins her, and the class-and-dinner thing becomes a routine between the two.

Reichardt's approach to this material, adapted from short stories by Maile Meloy, is abundantly patient. The idea, admirably, is to look at these characters in the middle of their everyday routine. The movie moves at an easy pace, and Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt's camera remains still as the characters almost blend into the backdrops of civilization and nature that surround them (This is especially true in the case of Jamie, who goes about her work in the stables in a long take that has her passing in and out of frame). There's a sense of normalcy to the proceedings, as in the way nothing of overt significance happens, making the moments of actual significance—on the subtler end, the sexism two of these characters face and, on the more obvious end, a hostage situation—seem just as normal.

What's odd is that the first two stories seem to revolve around the same point (Only the first one takes it anywhere, namely how Fuller's sexist assumptions about Laura backfire on him), while the third stands out as its own entity (Even its look, nights awash in florescent lights and streetlamps, is dissimilar). It's the strongest section of the movie, with Gladstone—in particular—and Stewart navigating the charming ways of this budding friendship, which turns uncomfortable and bittersweet because we sense one character might have other expectations for the relationship.

There's mystery underneath this segment, and it stands starkly in contrast to the way Reichardt puts too fine a point on the aims of the first two stories. The impact of the final tale overshadows the rest of Certain Women in a way that does no favors to the ones that precede it.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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