Certain Women ★★★½

Certain Women tells the story of four Montana women as they navigate roadblocks ahead in their ‘average’ lives and how they manage to make it through. Like every other Kelly Reichardt film, the film moves in a very patient manner, allowing the characters move and express themselves in a subtle way. The cold, arid atmosphere of Montana plays as a character in itself, illuminating the empty, sad state of minds of Reichardt’s leading women. In the midst of this sadness, Certain Women provides the opportunity to witness four incredibly strong, independent women who have their agency in life. Here, the men are weak, and incapable of making decisions which puts forth the active role that these women participate. These women take over the responsibilities and the decisions to do. Their desires and goals in life are achieved by their strong determination which makes Certain Women an interesting film.

However, I am conflicted with its storytelling. The film used a familiar story device which tells the stories of these women in three vignettes. The first centers on Laura Dern’s character who is a lawyer who is dealing with her disgraced client, and eventually her successful negotiation in a hostage incident. The second story is about Michelle Williams’ character who negotiates with an elderly fellow and tries to persuade him to sell his sandstones in his property so that she can build her house. The third (which is the best one) is about a lonely ranch woman (the amazing Lily Gladstone) who develops an infatuation with a teacher (Kristen Stewart). Though carefully rendered in their particular situations, the first two vignettes are just thin in detail and in character buildup. There’s not really much going on with those two characters and although their actions are fairly reasonable, their stories are quite passionless.

However the third act is what made Certain Women shine. The unspoken infatuation between the ranch woman and the teacher is disarming as it is mesmerizing. If Reichardt only expanded on this act, this would be such a blast, but I can’t rate a movie high just because of its specific parts. It should be the sum of its parts which somehow feels unbalanced. Going back, the third act truly delivers the point of what Reichardt is trying to say. The loneliness and the desires that follow is heartbreaking and Reichardt’s signature style of filmmaking matches the tone of this kind of journey.

The performances are golden. Dern and Williams gave naturalistic performances which again are bogged down by the shallowness of their stories. But it’s really Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone who are revelatory in this. Stewart’s mysterious, foggy presence makes an interesting impression as a teacher who cannot really decide what she wants in life. Even if she already got her degree and being successful on her own, her mind is somewhere else. She feels empty inside. While Gladstone is emptier, and a true woman flung out of space. The emotions they withdrew from one another is affecting, and heartbreaking despite of being unspoken. At the end of her failed mission, the camera gazes on Gladstone’s calm face while driving. Watch how her face became from being calm to being frustrated, and then leads to insufferable pain which reveals slowly in itself.

Overall, I admire Certain Women for its idea of putting strong, independent women at the center of their narratives. However, certain choices made by the director are not quite successful in its execution. Except for the fact that its third story is nothing but phenomenal.

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