Milo Garner reviews Kelly Reichardt’s LFF 2016 Best Film winner.
Certain Women, an adaptation of three short stories from Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, is clearly a Kelly Reichardt film. The indie writer-director’s calling cards of sparse story and realistic characters are here in full force, backed by perhaps her best ensemble cast. Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and impressive newcomer Lily Gladstone star across the three stories centred on – you guessed it – certain women.
The first story focuses on Dern as Laura Wells, a lawyer stuck with a frustrating client, William (Jared Harris). William had suffered a workplace injury, but foolishly signed away his rights to sue in an unimpressive settlement – and despite Laura’s best efforts, he refuses to understand this. As his lingering becomes tiresome she refers him to another lawyer, this time a man, and he accepts his word for it immediately (the feminist overtone is mentioned directly in the dialogue). That night, he breaks into her office and takes a security guard hostage. The work of the cast is excellent and some of the dialogue great, but there is little more to be said about this opener: it is a slight if stylish episode ultimately concerning the fate of a low-skilled worker when physically damaged, and perhaps the carelessness of the law on such occasions. It also considers loneliness, a theme we will return in the other two stories; William’s lack of people to turn to is largely the cause of the ridiculous circumstances he finds himself in. But given this section is played as much for comedy as it is for drama, it’s not especially powerful in that respect.
Following this, quite suddenly, begins the next story. Michelle Williams takes the lead as Gina, a middle-class outdoorsy type hoping to build a home in the countryside. This story is only linked to the first very vaguely (though that tenuous connection dismisses the idea this might be a simple anthology piece), with Gina’s husband, Ryan (James LeGros) having been seen earlier with Laura in a romantic situation. It’s an easy detail to miss, and not one that necessarily informs the viewer much on the themes in this second story. The second story itself is in fact the most unusual of the three, and mainly concerns Gina’s efforts to buy some bricks from an old man, Albert (René Auberjonois). The central event here is Gina and Ryan’s visit to Albert’s house in an attempt to convince him to sell. Albert, however, seems less interested in talking to Gina than to Ryan and constantly interrupts her, in a re-emergence of the feminist overtone from the first story. Moreover, a sense of loneliness returns, again separate from the leading character, even if it does appear she is being cheated on. Ultimately Albert relents and agrees to sell the bricks, and the couple leave. This might not sound exciting, and honestly it’s not, but nonetheless the acting and script are good enough to keep us engaged. That sense of realism Reichardt is famed for is perhaps most evident in this rather domestic tale, though out of the trio of stories presented here, it is the weakest, and least relevant to the whole.
Following on from this is the film’s height – the third story, which ranks among Reichardt’s best work. It starts with Gladstone’s Jamie, a ranch hand tending to horses in the countryside. Driving into town one night she follows some cars toward the school and goes on to follow their occupants into a classroom. This turns out to be a course on school law taught by a young lawyer, Beth Travis, played brilliantly by Kristen Stewart. Despite having nothing to do with the class, most of the students being middle-aged teachers, Jamie sits in at the back. After the class concludes she talks to Beth and in a mildly awkward conversation discovers that Beth must make a four hour commute to get to and from the biweekly class within a day. The two women end up talking in a diner – the conversation is never about anything overtly significant, but is an example of the human connexion Reichardt writes and directs so well. The chemistry between the two is obvious, if not necessarily romantic (though some have suggested this), and as a result Jamie returns to the class weekly despite having no interest or ambition in school law. I see it more as a symptom of loneliness again. Jamie needs someone to talk to: outside her scenes with Beth she is mostly seen alone at the ranch. Despite meeting regularly after class, and in one particularly sweet moment sharing a horse for transit, Jamie is shocked one week to find Beth has quit the class due to the commute, without a word. She impulsively takes the drive to Livingston, and after sleeping in her car searches the law offices to find Beth (with Laura from the first story walking by her at one point). When she finds Beth, there is an excruciatingly awkward interaction, and Jamie is ultimately left, again, alone. This story is simple and, in many ways, predictable, but heart-wrenching nonetheless – out of the three stories this is the one most about loneliness, and it never pulls its punches.
In context of the other two parts, despite the narrative references, I don’t feel it is strengthened or weakened much. The purpose of linking the three stories at all is somewhat questionable. At the end of the film a brief epilogue for each story is shown in sequence, apparently suggesting that these aren’t entirely separate stories as they are essentially intercut here. But even this shows they are more distinct that anything else. Loneliness can be spotted across the film but in different, often secondary, positions, and by Reichardt’s own word it isn’t a film about loneliness, and doesn’t particularly feel like one besides the final section. This means that the parts are not equal to the whole: the third is brilliant, the first rather good, and the second merely fine, if a little ho-hum in sections. Without a strong thematic or narrative link, it seems strange that the stories overlap at all, unless doing so was more of a gimmick. But even with that structural issue, this is still certainly a film worthy of praise – the acting is great (especially in the finale), its formal elements are as beautiful as one might expect from Reichardt and returning cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (very), and there are plenty of moments that can be found nowhere else.
Certain Women is out now in the UK. See the trailer below: