Certain Women ★★★★

Kelly Reichardt’s film, Certain Women, comprises a triptych of short stories connected by the barest of narrative overlaps. But they are all united by themes such as loneliness and time, location - the wintry plains of Montana - and by their focus on strong female characters. 

The first story follows Laura (Laura Dern), a lawyer who is trying to help a client with a civil employment case, which escalates into a hostage drama. This dramatic synopsis betrays the understated care Reinhardt takes in telling the story. Laura is professionally powerless to help her client. The best she can do is patiently acknowledge his lot as a victim on the scrap heap of society’s failure. The law is uncaring; there is no safety net; there is only a gun within easy reach. 

The second story shows Gina (Michelle Williams), a businesswoman preparing to build her family’s home. We recognise her husband as the man briefly seen at start of the first story having a lunchtime dalliance with Laura, and this knowledge undercuts how we view his relationship with Gina. They are not what you’d call happy, and Gina feels let down by his mild-mannered haplessness, including with respect to his light-touch parenting of their surly teenager. Yet this is a story of a relationship in stasis: of domestic drift, not rift. 

The final story follows Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a ranch hand, living alone and caring for the horses over the winter. Her loneliness draws her to a night class in town where she meets junior lawyer, Beth (Kristen Stewart), who has drawn the rookie short straw and is teaching a class of disinterested school teachers about education law. Beth doesn’t want to be there, but for Jamie these evenings amount to the highlight of her week; and their slight connection is the closest she enjoys to a human relationship. 

The three stories are all beautifully told, with thematic unity, and yet with enough tonal variations and sharply drawn characters for each part to stand out distinctly on their own. Reichardt films the stories with a slow and finely judged pace - a painterly style, highlighting minor moments of loneliness, miscommunication and daily existence, which somehow amount to real depth. She brings a rare sensitivity to her characters, with a fine eye for their fragile connections that form and break or melt like the frost on the trees. 

In each of the stories there’s an interesting tension that arises from her characters’ different perceptions of time. The people on a slow trajectory, with patience to burn, including Jamie and most of the men, are the more disempowered characters; whereas those on a faster track, including Laura, Gina and Beth have a place in the system. There’s a subtle sociopolitical commentary tugging at this tension: it is the women (in this case) with a profession, or money, or prospects who are pulling away from the others, and they have to choose whether to adjust, with empathy and kindness to the slower track, or leave it behind. Laura chooses patience, Gina feels trapped, and Beth wants to pull away. But in facing their options they all bear witness to lives that are drifting or have run aground, and the wintry chill that hangs over the landscape, also hangs close over their lives.

This Film Society screening was introduced by Claire Henry, a lecturer at Massey University, who gave a brief but interesting talk about Kelly Reichardt’s approach to filmmaking, which got me thinking about the role of time in the film. Henry has written a paper on the topic, which can be found here.

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