Recently I went to see Certain Women, the new film by American director Kelly Reichardt, which tells three separate but very loosely connected stories about women living in the US state of Montana. It is the kind of film which divides opinion. In the group I went with, most people found it slow, boring or pointless, and I noticed a few audience members left the cinema before the end of the film. So I feel the need to write about it and explain why I liked this film so much.
The stories in Certain Women are told slowly but so realistically that I became absorbed in the women’s lives. The film shows people going about everyday life in the same way that the French director Eric Rohmer’s films do, revealing how it feels to live that particular life in those circumstances and environment. While Rohmer’s films are usually about groups of middle-class characters and the relationships between them, Certain Women focuses on both middle and working-class characters, the experiences of solitude, loneliness and self-sufficiency, and the difficulties in connecting with other people. It’s not true to say that nothing happens; quite a lot happens but it’s presented in a low-key, realist style and partly happens internally, within the characters’ emotions. The film gives you time and space to immerse yourself in the characters and the beautiful, remote, sometimes desolate setting, a place of vast mountains, small towns, diners and empty highways.
The first story follows a lawyer, Laura, played by Laura Dern, who is representing William (Jared Harris), a middle-aged man who wants to bring a court case against his previous employer. It emerges that there was some sort of incident at work and William suffered injuries and ongoing health problems and no longer works. It becomes clear that he is spending a lot of time at the lawyer’s office, turning up uninvited, and carries a lot of anger towards his former employer. It turns out that it is impossible for him to bring the court case because he has already agreed to take the small compensation initially offered to him by his employer. Laura has been attempting to explain this to him for months, but it takes a male lawyer to tell him before he can accept the truth. Laura’s relationship with William is complicated, as she sympathises with his situation and endeavours to be kind to him but also feels uncomfortable with his erratic behaviour and threats of destruction. At one point he insists on getting in the car to drive home with her and then says he wants to shoot his employers with a machine-gun. In this unnerving situation Laura tries hard to maintain boundaries and a professional distance. Somehow Kelly Reichardt manages to capture on film the way in which a woman can feel unsafe in very mundane, undramatic circumstances. I don’t know how the film achieves this; maybe it’s through the cinematography, which I remember in those scenes as being cramped and oppressive, or the excellent, emotionally convincing acting by Laura Dern and Jared Harris.
The story progresses when William takes a security guard hostage at his former employer and Laura is called in to help speak to him and persuade him to give himself up to the police. I found this section absorbing because it was so realistic, capturing the way it might feel to be caught up in this situation and all the small decisions Laura needs to make to achieve her aim, while obviously feeling fear and anxiety. William makes a bargain with Laura but she fails to keep her side of it. The scene ends with a shot of Laura, with an expression perhaps of doubt over whether she had made the right decision or of pain that she had betrayed William, even though she did what she needed to do as a lawyer and to prevent a crime taking place.
The second story follows Gina (Michelle Williams), who is married with a daughter. In contrast to Laura, she is less solitary and more involved in family life. She seems harassed and impatient with her husband and moody teenage daughter. I found Gina’s character the least appealing of all the women portrayed, as she seemed quite hard and even slightly ruthless, and I found her story rather disconcerting. We find out that Gina and her husband Ryan (James LeGros) are building a new house. They decide to stop at the home of Albert (Rene Auberjonois), an elderly man they know, to persuade him to give them some sandstone that is on his property. Those few words summarise the plot of this section of the film. For me, the film focuses on the sense of unease surrounding this decision, as Albert is confused and it is unclear if he understands what they are suggesting. They initially offer him money but in the end he is not paid. Although he did agree to give them the stones, it is debatable whether they should have tried harder to pay him. The scenes between the characters also felt awkward as it is clear that Albert is very lonely and vulnerable but Gina and Ryan are only really visiting him to try and obtain the sandstone. Both Ryan and Gina do have some doubts about whether to proceed, but the last time we see Gina she is looking at the stones contentedly, maybe envisaging the house they will build. Maybe, as Gina suggests, they will make something wonderful from the stones to make up for the way they came into their possession.
The final section is probably the most emotionally powerful of all three. Kristen Stewart plays a young lawyer, Beth, who is teaching an evening class on school law to a group of bored teachers in a small town called Belfry. The grumpiness and apparent reluctance of the teachers to be there results in some amusing moments. Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a young woman who works on a ranch nearby, also attends the class and the film depicts the relationship developing between the two. Beth tells Jamie that she is driving four hours each way from the city of Livingston to teach the class, in need of extra money and experience as she is just starting out in her career, and she is obviously exhausted. Jamie lives an isolated life on the ranch. It is clear she loves horses and other animals and the work suits her very well, but her life seems very lonely and lacking in human connection. The film evokes strongly, both through the way the scenes are cut and filmed and through Lily Gladstone’s wonderful acting, how the law class is the highlight of Jamie’s week and the focus for all her hopes. She tells Beth she wasn’t enrolled but just walked into class when she saw other people go in, this detail showing her desire for human contact and company. This story mostly takes place at night, and the dark, quiet settings, from the ranch to the diner to the schoolroom in the evening, conjure up a mood of mystery and isolation. We can see how Jamie is falling in love with Beth, while Beth is friendly but concerned with her own problems and mainly sees Jamie as someone to unload to. She sees her time in Belfry as transitory and peripheral to her real life.
When it is announced that Beth will not be teaching the class any longer, Jamie on impulse drives the four hours to Livingston to find Beth. Her early morning wanderings round Livingston reveal the contrast between rural and city life. She looks curiously through softly-lit windows at people talking in late-night cafes or bars, as if seeing a life she didn’t know existed. Meanwhile, a shop window displays cowboy hats and check shirts, the ranch lifestyle being sold to wealthier city dwellers. The film perfectly captures the sense of dislocation experienced in the small hours of the morning. Eventually Jamie finds Beth and in a sad scene understands that Beth is not interested in a relationship with her. It is all the more poignant because Jamie doesn’t express her disappointment to anyone; all she can do is get in the car and drive away again. The film leaves the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Although I very much empathised with Jamie and felt she was a very likeable character, I could understand Beth’s reaction, as she perhaps found it disturbing to realise the feelings Jamie had built up for her without her knowledge. I felt there was a link to the first story, with Laura and William, in that a greater connection between the characters was prevented by the need for self-protection.
When I watched the film, I felt it was like reading short stories and it reminded me a little of the writing of Alice Munro. I discovered afterwards that it is based on short stories by an American writer called Maile Meloy. The sense of short stories remains in the interiority and introspective nature of the film, the feeling that it is exploring the significance of these events to the characters, giving glimpses of their histories and emotional lives. The three sections are very loosely related to one another (for example, one character appears in both the first two) but there are no real connections between the stories. Maybe the real connection is the mood or atmosphere of the film, which weaves a spell around all the characters. It depicts self-contained episodes in these characters’ lives but the film ends by returning to each of them in turn, without a clear resolution, with a sense that there is more to be imagined and known about these four women.