Certain Women ★★★½

Film #2 of the Sydney Film Festival

Included In Lists:
Strong Performances - Lucy Gladstone

Certain Women is a film that feels assured of itself, composed of three stories that involve three women, whose stories are interlocked indirectly but handled in a manner that requires each one to be treated as small tale of their own, each section having their own journey.

With such a mode of storytelling, Reichardt shows her ambitions as a filmmaker, but retains that calm and internally stirring vibe that fuels much of her films, and with this confidence, or over-confidence I should say, the thematic link between each story seems unassured of itself. Does she intend to depict the conditions of a modern woman, the struggles that they endure on a daily basis and the aspirations or necessities that drive them? If so, she attends to such with restraint to deliver great clarity to these intentions, and instead highlighting the dramatisations and characterisations that exist upon each story.

Thankfully, what she has provided almost compensates for the flaws that Certain Women possesses. Unfortunately, the film’s efficiency can only be found in the film’s bookends, the first involving Laura Dern’s Laura Wells, a lawyer in a small Montana town, attempts to realise the closed legal predicament that her client, Fuller (Jared Harris), is in, as through manipulative forces and poor decision making, he sees his life shooting through a closing tunnel, unable to maintain the fundamental elements that was once in his life. It was an opener that demonstrated Reichardt’s abilities to create such charged and empathetic performances from her cast, without resorting to measures of melodrama to sell the complication or their progression, managing to incorporate some layers of humour beneath, one that is consistent throughout the entire film.

The second engaging story of the film is also its last, led by a worthy performance by Lily Gladstone as the loner, Jamie, who seems to live a simple life in a more rural setting, where she professionally tends to horse stables, and one day she stumbles upon a class for education law, tutored by the equally fascinating performance by Kristen Stewart as Beth Travis. Through this, a relationship between the two form as Beth’s dissatisfaction of her position and Jaime’s palpable loneliness, would bring the two to late dinners at a local diner. It is a relationship that Reichardt ensures not to step onto over dramatic terms, allowing the natural awkwardness and melancholy that turmoils beneath them to appear with a natural presence, and its protagonist perspective actually lies in Jaime’s character rather than Beth, who actually exists here as the attracted subject, for which Jaime attempts to build a relationship with. This is the most engaging of all three of Reichardt’s collected stories, as the performances that fabricate the scene never ceases to lose steam, and both Stewart and Gladstone have been given far more to work with in their roles.

As for the film’s middle chapter, one that is led by Michelle Williams’ Gina Lewis, as she attempts to barter with a man for blocks of sandstone, as she and her family, composed of a husband and a daughter, are aspiring to create a new home, one that shows a sense of authenticity in its construction and essence, thus the need for particular materials. The film’s dramatic charge actually comes from the relationship that Gina has with her daughter, and the perceived position she has in this family dynamic, with Reichardt also attempting to push the idea of a woman showing a sense of authority and passionate labour for her family and their future, one that moulds the perception of her daughter towards her as a villain in the relationship. Lewis’ attempts to get through to her daughter, beyond the alienating attitude, but through each failure, there is a sense of loss felt in what used to be there. Though the dynamics of its characters would allow for opportunities to explore its characters, Reichardt seems to indulgently paces the film at a slower pace, and lacks in content to compensate such a decision, with not enough interaction between characters to stimulate any substantial thought.

Reichardt is a minimalist who pursues her film with the primary focus set on her characters, while the environment that envelopes and consumes them is also critical to the film’s thematic intentions and in capturing that particular mood, it still does not trump the importance of compelling characters. Certain Women is a continuation of that trend, even if only two-thirds successful, finding its cast in pitch perfect notes and conveying a silent sense of complexity that many filmmakers fail to achieve with their characters.

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