Directed by: Kelly Reichardt.
Written by: Kelly Reichardt based on the stories by Maile Meloy.
Starring: Laura Dern (Laura), Michelle Williams (Gina), Kristen Stewart (Elizabeth Travis), Lily Gladstone (The Rancher), James Le Gros (Ryan), Jared Harris (Fuller), John Getz (Sheriff Rowles), Joshua T. Fonokalafi (Amituana), Sara Rodier (Guthrie), Rene Auberjonois (Albert).
The films of Kelly Reichardt are at their best when seemingly nothing is actually happening. She makes the type of films that the unobservant say “nothing happens” in – and yet, if you’re paying attention, Reichardt says more with her depictions of the everyday, the mundane, than most filmmakers do with a lot more dramatics. Her most recent film before Certain Women was Night Moves – a fine film in its own right, but probably Reichardt’s weakest – in part because it is the most plot driven. This is a filmmaker at her best when telling simple stories – like the two old friends reuniting for a trip only one wants to take in Old Joy, or in its depiction of a woman too poor to take her dog with her to the next town in Wendy & Lucy. With Certain Women, Reichardt has adapted three short stories by Maile Meloy, and makes a little effort to ensure they interlock – but mainly, these are everyday stories – where it’s what is left unsaid by the characters that carries the most weight.
In the first story Laura Dern plays Laura – a lawyer, sleeping with a married man, Ryan (James LeGros), who arrives at work to once again be confronted (in a friendly manner), by her most annoying client – Fuller (Jared Harris). She has told him he has no case against his former employer for a workplace injury – not because they are not at fault, but because he signed away his right to soon with a too quick, too small settlement. Fuller finally accepts this – not because he believes Laura, but because she brings in a colleague – a man – who explains the same thing to Fuller. Fuller does something desperate then – and Laura is called in to talk him down. He doesn’t really think he’ll get away with it, but does it anyway.
We then move onto Gina (Michelle Williams), who along with her husband – Ryan, the guy sleeping with Laura – is planning on building a new house. They go to see Albert (Rene Auberjouinis), an old man, to buy a load of sandstone that has simply been sitting on his land for decades now. Albert is hesitant to make the sale – not because he’s going to use the sandstone – but because years ago, he and his now dead brother, planned to use it, and never got around to it. Like the first segment, the woman is more than competent – Gina is clearly in charge, and yet Albert only addresses Ryan when they talk, even if Gina does most of the talking the other way. She grows frustrated, but cannot show it – unless she screw up the sale.
The final segment is easily the best – hell, it’s one of the best things I’ve seen all year. It stars Lily Gladstone as a rancher named Jaime, who after a long day working the ranch, heads into town, and wanders into a classroom, where Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart), is teaching school law. There’s only a few other students, Jaime isn’t really registered, and Elizabeth barely knows the subject matter. Not only that, she has to drive four hours, each way, to teach the twice weekly class. The two become friends over the weeks – heading to the local diner after each class for a few minutes of conversation. Then, one evening, Elizabeth doesn’t show – but a replacement does. And Jaime goes to see her.
The first two stories are about casual, understated misogyny – Fuller won’s listen to Laura, but will to her male colleague – although when he knows he’s screwed, it’s her he wants to talk to (perhaps thinking – wrongly – that she’ll be more likely to help him out). In the second, Gina and Ryan are trying to build a new house, even though their own marriage has a faulty foundation (yes, the metaphor is a little strained, but it’s there). I liked the first segment more than the second – Dern and Harris are great, and even though the film’s narrative goes into some well-trod territories, it does so in a more understated way than normal, and ends with a quiet whimper. The second is the weakest of the three segments – even if Williams, a Reichardt regular, gives a typically wonderful performance. The whole segment just seems like it’s building to something that just never comes.
But it’s the third segment that makes Certain Women special. In it, Kirsten Stewart shows, once again, why she’s one of the best actresses around – and yet even her great work cannot compare to the work done by Lily Gladstone as Jaime. This segment gradually builds into a quiet, heartbreaking unrequited love story – one in which Jaime puts herself out there – for perhaps the first time – and then has to deal with the aftermath, all by herself, in her quiet stoic way (Reichardt simply leaves the camera on her for a long time as she drives away). It’s one of the very best moments of any film this year.