Certain Women ★★★★★

Always exciting to finally get to see one of your most-anticipated movies of the year. Even more exciting when it retroactively earns that anticipation. Toward the beginning of the year I watched all of Kelly Reichardt's films and fell in love with pretty much all of them (I'm not ~quite~ there for River of Grass, but I own it now and bet I can get there with it), which vaulted this to the top of my list for the year. It's only by the good grace of having come to know a director I like even more that it was bumped a spot down my list, but even then, that new director being my current favorite of all time, it was still in a more-or-less interchangeable state with my new top spot.

All that said, I did have concerns about this movie, ones that were crystallizing as it began. I love the way Reichardt works womanhood into her films and, especially with Wendy and Lucy and River of Grass, makes that one dimension of her stories but one that it doesn't insist upon. Even in Meek's Cutoff, which takes on the masculinity of its most obnoxious figures more directly, that is still at least hand-in-hand with its western ideas. This, from all the pitches I've seen, based on how it doesn't have a single continuous story, seemed to be foregrounding the push and pull between women and men which I feel like she's very elegantly worked into the background of her career, and I worried it would feel like a step backward.

I say all of this because the movie almost feels conceived to play on that expectation. Dern's story leans heavily into the idea that men are pulling apart her life by having a man very directly do exactly that, and likewise having her at one point audibly observe that, despite her expertise and profession, she still doesn't get the respect for her point of view that her male colleagues do. Even then, though, there's clearly greater things at play. The movie has a sensationally wild plot but in presentation it plays more as a very, very, very, very (very) droll farce, and it's legitimately hilarious at points for it (second-biggest selling point I can give you: come here to bust a gut at Jared Harris sobbing). It leaves character details on the table just to fill them out as full people. It's filled with a gorgeous sense of place, as are all Reichardt films of course. Within the first story, I was concerned that this was the movie I worried it would be, where the trouble women face are boiled down to "men" and that's the primary thing this movie was going to offer. Reichardt, though was putting in the work to make sure it kept me involved as it engaged in that very intentional distancing.

In the second story, with Michelle Williams, everything starts becoming clear. Williams is about a decade younger than Dern and I think the de-escalating age is the key throughline of this movie, one that gives a more profound dimension to it than just "women." In kind, here Williams' problem is as much one where the men in her life mean well but are prone to fumbling what she asks of them, and her biggest issue is a girl, her young daughter. But the things that connect it in its bones to the first story feel born from her, from where she is in her life. Where Dern outright comments on how Harris doesn't take her seriously because she's a woman, Williams talks around it with her husband, about how "he knows how to talk" to the guy they're on their way to. Reichardt leaves the discussion there, not needing to outright explore why Williams doesn't outright state what Dern does, but it's all there in the movie to intuit, especially as it begins moving toward Gladstone's story.

Gladstone's story has (rightfully) been lauded as this movie's peak, and it shows Reichardt at peak form in every moment. It shows her capacity to pace emotional climaxes brilliantly, ala how the movie moves between Gladstone/Stewart's first dinner and the next time they meet, basically replaying the same sequence twice in a row to be the two intervening days. It has Gladstone in an unfathomably nuanced, beautiful performance, one where things almost always go unsaid but never once mistaken, and Stewart as a wonderful screen partner for her. It's the most lucid sense of place between the three, further ramping down the scale and up the intimacy, both of which were shifting in the same direction within Williams' story, and fully subsuming itself into the gorgeous Montana vistas. It has The Emotional Climax of the year, in a scene that had my face drenched in tears.

It also has this aspect to it where it finally clarifies what it is that Reichardt is playing with here. All of her previous films have relentlessly subverted their ostensible genre and, though something complex seems to be going on here, it's unclear what. Certain Women, then, ultimately turns out to be an almost subversion of explicitly feminist films, in a way. It takes iconography from them, things like the roles the lead women play in their stories (esp. the beleaguered professional woman/mother) and the vividly-characterized women at their centers, full of details that only need exist to fill them further out and layered, occasionally unlikeable performances. It almost needs to engage in pastiches of these stories for its first two segments, really, slowly giving them curious identity but they feel like they're engaging in ideas which have come before it.

Through that, the last third is an explosion into the movie's aims. Gladstone's story is palpably singular from stories which have come before it -- it's what everyone identifies in it, after all -- and likewise features the least men, and no major men of consequence. It's a distillation of the direct influence of men out of her story, making it a plot only itself about women. And it's no easier for her anyway. It's much harder, in fact. The men you know are a difficult force to reckon with as a woman, this movie posits, but that's not the crux of the issue for its money. The difficulty is that the world around you is designed not to be for you in the first place. Not in any specific way, but insomuch as it's a lonely, mundane, melancholy, alienating place to live in.

Gladstone's presence, along with the plot, escalates this hugely from the earlier stories alongside ideas of intersectionality, both via race and sexuality and both magnificently understated, and at her hands this movie's arc comes wholly into focus. It comes into clarity how age inures you to the pains that come alongside the loneliness of being a woman in this world but how that inuring is what gives you the voice to speak about it. How even if that's true, it doesn't make that non-inured time any easier to live through. And, unlike many, I found the epilogue the perfect grace note to that. How Dern is able to live with Harris in her life beyond the moment when he threatened her life. How we explicitly see Williams do all the work we know she must do on more or less a daily basis and see her take her pride in the fruits of those labors. And how it all returns to Gladstone's stable, little but her and her horses.

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