Certain Women ★★★★

Sundance 2016: #7

Patient, quiet look into three separate stories and the way the lives of those in them intersect.

This was kind of impenetrable for me on a first watch, so you'll have to forgive this review not being as comprehensive as my others. There are a few clear themes that emerge readily—female empowerment, loneliness, drive/ambition, failure to communicate, displacement of desire (what we want being different from what we think we want)—but I couldn't put it all together into a singular reading on a first-time viewing. What I came away most impressed with was simply the formal narrative structure and the performances.

I'm not a performance guy (I'm good at neither observing nor explaining them), so suffice it to say that everyone across the board is incredible. Lily Gladstone is particularly unforgettable: she plays a lonely farm hand stuck taking care of horses by herself, and when Kristen Stewart's desperate and overworked teacher shows up—and then, more importantly, when she leaves again—Gladstone communicates a sadness that managed to be profound and powerful without being showy or extravagant. She just stares off into the distance, but we can see the light fading from her eyes. Michelle Williams was also a personal favorite (driven but frustrated).

The film takes place in six parts with three rotating stories in the pattern A1, B1, C1, A2, B2, C2, with A1–C1 being significantly longer (roughly dealing with the first and second act respectively of each rotating story) and A2–C2 being conclusions for each story (the third acts). This is where the idea of displaced desire comes in: each story features a character who has something they want; in the first half of their story (i.e. A1–C1) they meet and pursue that something; and in the second half of their story (i.e. A2–C2) they either succeed or fail in their desire, with various different complications (e.g. they got it, but it's not what they want anymore).

There's also a sense in which this could be considered a modern western (I know I probably say that about everything now, but bear with me). Each of the three stories takes place at a different level of civilization: Laura Dern is in the heart of the city, working as a busy lawyer; Michelle Williams is on the fringes of society, trying to build a house for her family; and Lily Gladstone is in the rural outskirts of Montana (the modern-day frontier), dealing with nature and wildlife. These locations also form part of each woman's identity and the way they interact with the world around them (e.g. Laura Dern is less obviously lonely since she's so busy, but while Lily Gladstone is more obviously lonely, her work also seems more satisfying).

If you've liked Kelly Reichardt's previous work you'll probably like this as well. The shots are just as slow and purposeful (one of my favorite elements of this and Meek's Cutoff), the performances are just as measured but complex (a strength that really shines here with such a stellar cast), and the atmosphere is just as thick and mesmerizing. I need another watch (or at least some more time) to completely sort it out for myself, but for now it's definitely recommended.

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