Certain Women is a dull, unadorned film upon first glance. Set to the backdrop of a cold, western landscape, devoid of all but a mountainous horizon and decorated by the empty roads upon which few cars do cross, the film tells the poignant stories of three women whose lives loosely connect. The film is adapted from a few short stories by Maile Meloy, from which director, writer, and editor Kelly Reichardt forges a saddening vignette of life in Montana.
These women are not under the employ of engaging, dramatic sequences to which the audience can relate. Their narratives are raw and quietly compelling. They are small fragments of a larger unseen picture that craves to be revealed. However, Reichardt does no more than show the seemingly inconsequential moments and the unequivocally heartbreaking exchanges between these characters that shape the narrative of this film. Each woman is struggling, yearning for a glimpse of contentment or variety in her wearisome life. Though, at times these desolate narratives feel like they are uneventful, these moments are plucked out and presented to the audience with purpose and underscored by muted sorrow.
Yet, despite the emotional reverence that the film evokes, there is little intimacy between the characters and the camera. The camera, in fact, rarely moves at all or does anything notable in the realm of cinematography, instead perceiving the delicate moments before it, observant in its storytelling. It does not close in upon the women to extract drama from a scene, but, rather, lets them do the telling. This allows for a bit of slowness to creep into the film, as some sequences drag more than others, but it also allows the emotion to come from the lead actresses too, whose performances breathe life into this doleful narrative.
Laura Wells (Laura Dern), whose life the first story revolves around, is a lawyer whose difficulties with a troublesome client come to build woeful tension and distress as the audience watches her manage and calm her despairing client.
The film then shifts to focus on Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams), a mother to an agitated teenage daughter (Sara Rodier) and wife to an unsupportive husband (James Le Gros). She leads the three in their endeavors to purchase sandstone from an elderly rancher with which they will build their new home.
The third story follows a ranch hand named Jamie (Lily Gladstone), who, for some unstated reason, decides to attend a night class on law. Here, she crosses paths with Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart), the teacher of the class, who drives a daunting four hours to teach every night the class is in session. Immediately enthralled by Beth’s presence, Jamie subsequently attends every following class , even though she is not enrolled, and dinner afterwards with Beth at a local diner.
Each story is captivating in its own way, crafted by Reichardt’s deft hand in rendering excellent bonds between characters. However, among the three, the concluding story of Jamie and Beth is the most dynamic. Its predecessors lack the acute emotional connection these two women draw from the audience. Shy and sweet is Jamie, exhibiting the distinguishable, heart-warming qualities one discovers upon developing an affection for someone. Beth too is shy, but for other, more guarded reasons. The audience will find themselves wanting the desirable fairytale ending to which many films conclude, hoping that their conversations beside burgers and fries will not be their last. This crush is silent, passionate, and what drives this narrative the whole way through.
These women have taken us on such a spirited journey that there is desire for more as the movie ends. There is no full closure for every character, a frustrating phenomenon perhaps not entirely appreciated by many others. Viewers enjoy a full circle narrative, one with its beginning, middle, and end. This film does not have that. These are small stories strung together to tell a larger one of loneliness and hardship. There does not need to be a beginning, a middle, and an end. There are simply three women with three stories to tell.
4 out of 5 stars