Director: Kelly Reichardt
Screenplay: Kelly Reichardt
Based on short stories by: Maile Meloy
Starring: Lily Gladstone, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Jared Harris, James Le Gros
Running Time: 107 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
Kelly Reichardt enjoys much acclaim for her films among mainstream critics, but she can be an acquired taste among bloggers and general audiences. You only have to compare the quotes and ratings from critics reviewing her work to her IMDb or Amazon star ratings to see there’s a bit of a gulf between intellectual appreciation and public opinion. Being what I’d consider part of the ‘slow cinema’ movement (which isn’t clearly defined, but includes similar films that are low on plot and action), her work isn’t particularly exciting or as attention-grabbing as more digestible auteurs making films in the 21st Century. Knowing this, I don’t rush to watch Reichardt’s films as I worry I’ll be in for a tedious slog, not helped by some less than enthusiastic opinions of her films I’ve heard expressed by a couple of friends. I did see Meek’s Cutoff a couple of years ago though and was very impressed, so my apprehension has dampened somewhat since then and strong reviews lead me to accept an offer of reviewing her latest film, Certain Women. Whilst I’m happy to watch the film now though, I’m still rather apprehensive about critiquing it. I consider myself quite a ‘nuts and bolts’ reviewer, who likes to list clear elements of the film that work or don’t work rather than waffle on about what a filmmaker is trying to ‘say’. So I find slow, quiet, thoughtful films like this difficult to analyse in my usual fashion. I’ll give it my best shot though.
Certain Women takes several short stories by Maile Meloy and uses them to create three only very loosely connected narratives, which are presented one by one through the bulk of the film, before revisiting them all briefly in the finale. The first story features Laura Dern as Laura, a lawyer troubled by a client (Jared Harris) that won’t accept the fact he doesn’t have a case. He seems to have a fondness for Laura too and won’t leave her alone, asking for her help when he cracks and takes someone hostage at gunpoint.
The second story sees Michelle Williams play a woman in an unhappy marriage (the audience know from the offset that her husband, played by James Le Gros, is cheating on her, even if she doesn’t) with a teenage daughter she doesn’t connect with. One thing the couple seemingly hope will make them stronger is the construction of a new house. Williams is keen to build it using ‘authentic’ materials, so she and her husband visit Albert (Rene Auberjonois), an old man who has a pile of sandstone blocks hand cut by American settlers a couple of hundred years ago. They want to talk him into letting them have the stones for their project, but Williams worries whether they’re doing the right thing.
The final story sees lonely ranch hand Lily Gladstone wander into a school law night class, because she “saw people going in”. The class is led by a young lawyer played by Kristen Stewart and the two form a friendship. Gladstone wants them to be more than mere acquaintances though and tries to push things further between them, which Stewart rejects.
Although on paper that’s one of the longest synopses I’ve written, there isn’t actually much more to the stories than what I’ve included (other than some final details I didn’t want to spoil). Reichardt doesn’t feel the need to cram her films with plot. There isn’t a lot of dialogue either. Instead it’s what’s not happening or being said that is important. This sounds kind of wanky, but all it means is that just enough information is presented on the surface for us to do the legwork and think about what’s going on in the minds of the protagonists. As an included essay on the film puts it, Reichardt’s films are “intense procedurals of the inner life” and “her modus operandi is to allow unexpressed longings to hang quietly in the air so we can feel them”.
This description might put off many and I’ll admit it’s not a film for everyone, but I loved it. It reminded me of the work of Yasujirô Ozu in how time is given to breathe and think about things rather than mindlessly follow a series of plot points to their conclusion. Her mastery of mis-en-scene is equally as effective as Ozu’s too. It’s not flashily stylish or breathtakingly beautiful to look at, but there’s a quiet, understated beauty to every frame. It’s shot on 16mm film, which many could see as an arty hipster sort of decision, but an included interview with Reichardt describes that it was simply to make the snow in the film look better on screen. Indeed she knows how to best utilize her landscape, and the desolate, lonely looking setting of Montana acts like another character.
The performances are all superb, as understated and subtle as the direction. With several well known and respected actresses on screen, surprisingly it’s the unknown Lily Gladstone who steals the show. Her face is so quietly expressive and her character delivers the most powerful sequence in the film when she is rejected by Stewart.
A final mention must go to the sound design too. The film is extraordinarily quiet throughout, with next to no music and only the odd scene of dialogue here and there. So it might seem odd to bring up the sound of the film, but there’s immense detail and beauty in the subtle soundscape running under everything. From the wind of the icy landscape to the distant hum of trains or the minute details of Gladstone’s work we regularly observe, it’s a quietly rich aural experience.
I’m waffling on now, after being worried I wouldn’t know what to say about the film, so I’ll tie things up by saying how I found myself swept up and strangely captivated by this quiet pean to deep seated unhappiness. It’s a film I found myself liking a lot without being sure why at first, but given time and thought, as the film allows, its many qualities seeped through. It may not sound appealing on the surface, but I’d recommend leaving preconceptions at the door and letting it win you over as it did me.
Certain Women is out on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The transfer beautifully presents the grainy 16mm photography and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio does justice to the exquisite sound design.
There are a handful of special features included too:
– New interviews with the film’s cast and crew, including Reichardt and executive producer Todd Haynes
– New interview with Maile Meloy, author of the stories on which the film is based
– PLUS: An essay by critic Ella Taylor
It’s not a huge amount of material, but all three interviews are required viewing and help you better appreciate Reichardt’s wonderful film.