There’ve been many movies this year one could say are ‘unlike anything else out there’, from the farting corpse of Swiss Army Man, to the foul-mouthed food products of Sausage Party, to The Lobster‘s outlandish animal transformation romance. But Certain Women is ‘unlike anything else’ in a completely different respect. It’s not mere strangeness nor creativity that sets director Kelly Reichardt’s newest apart. Rather, it’s her brave willingness to let nothing but the dignity and grace of her characters hold it together, without the need for the most basic tenants of coherent narrative structure. Though its opaque, slow-moving triptych of stories risks isolating viewers at every step, the film’s unflinching trust in itself and its audience to find humanity in the most elusive of forms leads to some of the most beautiful, quietly powerful moments of the year.
The film follows four downtrodden yet tenacious American women across three barely-connected slice-of-life storylines. In the first, Laura Dern plays a lawyer whose client is seemingly unable to accept council from a female. The second features Michelle Williams as a housewife looking to buy sandstone to build a new home, and who has grown distant from her husband and teenage daughter. Finally, relative newcomer Lily Gladstone portrays a lonely, awkward ranch hand who sits in on a law class on a whim only to become instantly infatuated with the perpetually exhausted young teacher played by Kristen Stewart. The backdrop for all three threads is small-town Montana, a chilly, dead-end zone that seems to have sucked the color out of its vistas and sapped the energy of its inhabitants.
By all accounts, a movie this sedated, elliptical and disjointed should not work. There is virtually no action to speak of, and its few shreds of external conflict either end anticlimactically or remain unresolved. The characters’ gloomy journeys don’t so much flow as drift vaguely in a direction, always dependent on outside (and often male) forces. Dern, Williams and Stewart have each proven themselves formidable actresses, but the slightness of plot strip them of the type of rousing material that would put them in contention for awards consideration come Oscar time. By the end, no clear message or theme has been stated, and hearts certainly haven’t been warmed. Why then is the film so engaging? Certain Women‘s lingering power is just as elusive as its meaning.
The answer is that all of the potential turn-offs instead become great strengths under Reichardt’s extraordinarily assured direction. Though the performances may seem plain at first, that’s because they are so masterfully subdued. The depth and breadth of seething strife and hidden hope these actresses transmit from even the smallest of glances is miraculous. Expert use of body language plays an essential role in conveying the huge mental burden these women carry as a result of deeply internalized societal biases that many (men) would erroneously label as everyday nuisances. These are the unheard, the unrecognized, the unappreciated, but Reichardt refuses to paint them as pathetic or helpless.
Defiance comes in the smallest of forms: looks, gestures and held-in tears. Reichardt focuses the camera on these tiny details not to emphasize the women’s powerlessness, but to shine a light on their secret resolve. These aren’t stories of female empowerment, they are stories of female endurance. But what makes this movie so resonant is that Reichardt has just as much faith in her audience as she does in her characters. She doesn’t have to connect or resolve her plots and she doesn’t have to pick up the pace, because she trusts that her audience will recognize and appreciate the humanity on screen regardless. It isn’t just that she believes in our intelligence, she believes in our sense of empathy as well, that we can connect to these stories even at their most meandering and cryptic.
That said, some of the stories are more effective than others. The Michelle Williams segment gives her character less time and fewer opportunities to establish her personality on the same level as the others, and ends up the weakest of the bunch. Dern is typically fantastic and her section is the most tense and accessible, though it’s an odd shame her performance is almost overshadowed by Jared Harris, who puts forth perhaps the finest acting of his career. The undisputed highlight is the Gladstone/Stewart episode, which features some of the most confident, compassionate and heartrending filmmaking of the year. Those final few scenes manage to be truly spectacular without any actual spectacle.
Certain Women is resolutely hopeful despite its unwavering bleakness, and endlessly mesmerizing despite its narrative lethargy. It’s understandable that many may be put off by its untraditional design and oppressive atmosphere, but those who seek quiet introspection and raw humanism should not miss this brilliantly understated work. It is that rare kind of movie that won’t blow you away while watching, but that you will find yourself thinking about days, weeks or months later. That’s a magnificent achievement for a film in which seemingly nothing happens, though perhaps that’s exactly the key to its power.
Score: 4 out of 5