Certain Women ★★★½

[7]

I never like to be the outlier who interrupts a critical lovefest, especially when it comes to Kelly Reichardt. I have long admired her films but have never been over the moon for them the way some others have. My favorite to date, without question, is Meek's Cutoff, partly because it's the film in which Reichardt gives free rein to her fascination with landscape. There's a seductive duplicity at work in Meek's, Reichardt ostensibly using the relative familiarity of the Western to provide a sturdy armature for her Benning / Hutton experimentalism. But there's also an insouciance to it; the "old world" of Meek's Cutoff clearly expires at the edge of the frame, pushing even the weeds into the present tense. It's cinema situated beside itself, and I love it.

Certain Women, based as it is on the Montana stories of Maile Meloy, cannot entirely avoid the landscape. In fact, the long opening shot of the new film, showing a train wending its way through the empty terrain, looks almost like a direct visual quotation of James Benning. However, Certain Women is beholden to a very different format. This film, defiantly and unwavering in its objective, is a triptych of character studies. Although the land circumscribes the kinds of choices the women in question can make, it is indeed secondary to the women themselves, who are "certain" in at least two regards: they are highly specific characters, and each in her own way is definite about her worth, wants, and position within the broader landscape of life. With one key exception, that being the youngest among them, these figures are in place.

Having said that, the tripartite form of Certain Women prevents it from being as strong as it could be. The first segment features a strong, poignant performance by Laura Dern as a small-town attorney (also named Laura) whose advice isn't respected by a desperate client (Jared Harris). Once she takes him to receive a second opinion, from a man, he gets the point. This clarifies the sexism that Laura has obviously faced throughout her career. But in a clanking miscalculation, Reichardt has Dern explicitly speak this subtext right into the dialog, as if she were dictating it into the minutes. (Whether or not Meloy is similarly blunt I do not know, but that is of no conseqeunce.) As this plot thread devolves into a rather sudden, scaled-down "action sequence," it becomes difficult to take this milieu seriously.

The second story, centered on Gina (Michelle Williams) and Ryan (James Le Gros) fares better, at least in terms of plausibility. Formally, it is almost the inverse of the Dern plot, its meaning so sublimated as to barely be discernible. She is a designer working on her dream home, he works for her, and she is trying to seal a deal she's been working on for a long time: purchasing a pile of prime sandstone from the home of a senior citizen, Albert (René Auberjonois, magnificent), who is not in possession of all his mental faculties. Gina keeps at him, trying to get him to verbally agree to sell the sandstone, which seems to have sentimental value, although his grip on those memories is tenuous. Noticing Albert's discomfort, Ryan intercedes, telling him he is under no obligation to sell. This angers Gina, since she takes this as Ryan undercutting her, although he is clearly demonstrating compassion for an elderly man who is in no position to "negotiate." But gender is an active concern in this situation; Albert treats Ryan like the boss, and so Ryan's words carry more weight in the situation that perhaps he even means them to. This description probably makes this plot sound like a roiling contest of wills, but the way it plays, virtually nothing is at stake. Gina wants sandstone; Ryan doesn't care; Albert is little more than an impediment.

If some viewers are perhaps overpraising Certain Women, it is undoubtedly because of the final story, which is simply flawless. A horse rancher (Lily Gladstone) wanders into an adult education class and is strangely fascinated by the beleagured city girl (Kristen Stewart) who's teaching. This segment gets so many things right, it's foolish to attempt to describe its impact. Just for starters, Stewart's harried adjunct law instructor, having taken a job four hours away from her home, is a perfect model of sincere academic disconnect. The course, "School Law," is something she's having to pull together at the last minute, and while she's attempting to enlighten the students about various Supreme Court cases regarding students' rights, the people taking the class (teachers, apparently) just want practical workplace info. What are my rights when I expel a student? Can the administration cut my planning period? etc. Elizabeth, the exhauster lawyer / teacher, has no clue.

Given the four-hour drive back (there was a mix-up regarding town names and distance), Elizabeth needs a bite to eat before heading back, and this is the rancher's opening. Painfully shy, she sits across from this "worldly" woman while she eats, saying hardly anything and not ordering food herself. Her broad, open face displays a childlike receptivity to anything this would-be teacher might be willing to share with her. While Stewart is customarily reticent in her acting, turning coyness and diffidence into an odd form of charisma, it's Gladstone who is the center of attention here. She reveals layers, her winsome behavior ever faltering, exactly, but eventually displaying hidden vibrations underneath -- loneliness, dissatisfaction, embarrassment, and the stirrings of inchoate sexual desire.

Like the first story, this final chapter of Certain Women heads in unexpected directions, surprising stretches of human behavior. But they never once beggar belief. Reichardt and Gladstone create a character whose impulsive lurches toward connection are awkward but absolutely relatable, echoing across the most besotted as well as the most cringeworthy moments of our past. And, in the final scene, Gladstone's prolonged silence demonstrates what the rest of Certain Women forgets: language is often superfluous, and almost always inadequate to the task.

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