Certain Women ★★★★

The Criterion Challenge, 40/100
2016 Ranked

Certain Women is pretty classic Kelly Reichardt. Her films are never overly fussed with getting to the conclusion, rather enjoying the journey to that unsatisfying finish line while presenting characters who make that journey more than worth taking. Toss in some gorgeous landscape shots and a terrifically fitting atmosphere and Reichardt films become a unique treat, even if not exactly the most thrilling or engaging works. There is just something so human, accessible, and honest, about her films that it more than makes up for any issues the sluggish pacing may present to the unaccustomed viewer. Here, Reichardt follows three women. Laura (Laura Dern) is a lawyer who has a client that is obsessed with filing a lawsuit though he cannot as he already accepted a payoff from the party he wishes to sue. Gina (Michelle Williams) is married with a daughter and having to deal with her husband and daughter enjoying one another more while her daughter is as pushy and annoying as a teenage girl could be. Jamie (Lily Gladstone) is a rancher who stumbles into the school law class of Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) and quickly takes a shine to her though Beth does not really seem to feel the same way. All three - probably even four - suffer from the same affliction: loneliness. Those they interact with also suffer from loneliness. In exploring this, Reichardt is not judgmental, rather she is honest and almost even spins this into being a somewhat deceptively optimistic film at times.

For Laura, she has a client named William Fuller (Jared Harris) who is struggling. Injured after an accident at work, William obsessively visits Laura because his wife wants him out of the house and he has no idea where else he could go waste time. Laura herself is not just busy, but she is also sleeping with a man during her lunch breaks as part of an affair. She is certainly struggling in her own right, having only her dog to hang out with when at home while having to deal with the insanity of William. It is almost comical when William goes to Laura’s office in the middle of the night and holds the night watchman hostage until Laura arrives and is able to get him to leave after which he is captured by the cops. For Laura, she seems rather content. Her life is not exactly full, but she does not seem to be actively picking at the scab of emptiness. She just sort of goes about her life, enjoys her things like the dog, and does her job. There is not much for Laura to find fulfillment in, but there is not much to cause her much stress either beyond William and any other eccentric clients. William is certainly a character who is incredibly interesting in his own right as a guy who will be left by his wife, got injured on the job and cannot work anymore due to the after effects, and will be going to jail for having held a man hostage. He is certainly a tragic figure who hates his life, threatening to shoot things up. He is certainly a more chaotic lonely than Laura who finds his statements appalling though she does have sympathy for him. This is a man who lost every way to define himself, now toiling in a life of absolute emptiness that offers little-to-no reason to get up in the morning.

In the second segment, Gina is very much representative of frustrated loneliness. This is a woman who is married to a man who she seemingly does not have too much in common with or, at worst, is content to play good cop to Gina’s bad cop with their daughter. This, obviously, causes Gina great frustration as her daughter is annoyed by her the second she opens her mouth and her her husband and daughter seem to exclude her from everything. This incredibly unfulfilling home life is one in which she seems to be practically invisible. As her and her husband buy sandstone from an old man named Albert (Rene Auberjonois), she waves at Albert through the window when they pick up the rocks only to be ignored. She is practically a ghost, existing only to float between moments without anyone ever noticing her and only, when they do, being annoyed by her presence. It is a rough existence, but one that she has seemingly made the most of all the same. She seemingly owns her own business, acting as the boss to her husband. She living life how she wants, soaking in nature at every chance she gets and finding fulfillment in those pursuits. In her family life, it may not be going as she wants but she certainly get a lot more fulfillment out of her existence than Laura, though both are great examples of women in business asserting themselves and having to find a way to overcome the sexist barriers in front of them. Doing so successfully, Certain Women is almost a story of triumph when it comes to Laura and Gina, as both are women who have found a way to get ahead and to be successful. Now, they just need to be happy.

The final section of the film focuses on Jamie, the rancher, falling for Beth, the teacher and lawyer. This was certainly the hardest section to watch, namely because it is both so awkward to watch Jamie try so hard with Beth only to get nothing in return. As each passing day goes by and as Beth keeps driving four hours from her home to teach a class in a subject she does not know, the section is practically melodic as it follows the same beat with Jamie caring for the horses, going to class, the pair go the diner, and then they leave separately. Beth, for her part, is a woman who took this job because she thought it was closer and did not want to be unemployed. She was driven entirely by fear, while similarly boning up on school law in order to not be embarrassed. Yet, she is certainly an uncertain teacher as she reads off of note cards and has no idea how to answer questions on the subject posed by the students (who are teachers) who go between on-topic questions and taking the time to ask about labor concerns. Jamie is sad the type of lonely. Reichardt shows her considerable empathy, but it is hard to not look away from the screen as Jamie tries to force a diner conversation to work with Beth or as she drives four hours to visit Beth when she does not show up for class one day. It is entirely awkward, but also showing the desperate lengths to which Jamie is willing to go in order to have a friend. Beth, however, is not her friend and barely even tolerates her presence. It is tragic to watch, pulling on the heart strings completely and demonstrating the incredible understanding of human emotion and motivation that Reichardt possesses. This is a woman who is deeply isolated, living only with horses and a little corgi, making her desperate for human contact no matter how fulfilling or unfulfilling. It is hard to watch, because it is real and Gladstone does a phenomenal job capturing the almost unaware nature of the character as she hardly even realizes just how awkward and how forced these interactions are. There is not really much redeeming quality about this segment in terms of happiness, instead it is perhaps the most resolutely sad portion of the film as Jamie is a woman who desperately needs help before she goes off the deep end.

One definitive aspect of Reichardt’s films is that they are definitely minimalist as they not only are quite slow, but are meditatively so as they muse about the life and emotions of those within the frame. This, as some have noted, does not impact the emotion of the film and how deeply felt they are as this is a film in which the characters do not have to say much of anything to have their inner feelings brought to the surface. This, in large part, due to the setting of the film. Setting into slow and isolated Montana, the characters in Certain Women literally traverse long distances between them and those close to them, literally go to further isolated parts of the Montana wilderness, and are often finding themselves alone even in more crowded places. These are unique individuals who, simply, do not have a perfect spot in the world for themselves. Laura is seemingly unfulfilled in her work. Gina is unfulfilled in her marriage. Jamie is unfulfilled in her life. It is hard to not think of Michelangelo Antonioni as an influence on Reichardt, not just in the minimalism of both but in two other elements. One, neither is concerned about the destination. Certain Women does not provide closure to any of the characters instead just showing this brief segment of their life as it is with no unnecessary drama and unfettered with typical cinematic requirements. It is just their life with all of the ups and downs inherent within. The destination hardly matters when it is the journey that truly proves to be the most revealing about us and these characters. Second, the use of setting to communicate or heighten or symbolize emotion. This is especially apparent in L’Avventura for Antonioni in which the design, architecture, and layout of the cities the characters go into wind up mirroring their emotions in an increasingly apparent manner. In Certain Women, the layout of Montana and the locales heighten and exemplify the characters’ emotions. Reichardt emphasizes this through constant landscape shots - which she also used heavily in Meek’s Cutoff - that showcases the isolation of these characters. For Laura, she is all alone in a strip mall. For Gina, she is all alone walking through the woods. For Jamie, she is all alone as her car sits in the middle of a field after a crash.

The lives of these characters are best summed up via the sequence in which Gina looks out the window as her husband drives. Reichardt uses a close-up on Gina as the reflection of the empty terrain can be seen rolling by as they drive. They are mere passengers in life, cut off from the world and even those near them. When surrounded by others, they are alone. When alone, they are isolated. With the slow, melodic lifestyle afforded to them by Montana and the often repetitive life they lead that sees them wake up, do the same thing as always, and then go to bed, Certain Women is a film with a great flow of life pace. It may be slow, but it is evocative and effective in capturing the emotion and the lives of these women in such a way that it highlights not just the isolation but also the occasional warmth and hint of happiness to be found in this barren terrain. Once again, Reichardt delivers a beautifully minimalist work that is wholly revealing as to the human experience of a few individuals.

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