Reviews and notes
2016 Sundance, Vancouver, Sydney, Jerusalem, Wellington, Melbourne, Toronto, Helsinki, Zurich, New York, Hamburg, Rio de Janeiro, London, Vienna, Thessaloniki, Singapore
2017 Göteborg, Belgrade, Buenos Aires
The great writer-director responsible for some of the best American films of the last decade has made what may be her most beautiful work of art yet. Certain Women
, adapted from three short stories by Montana author Maile Meloy, is a film so quiet and understated, that the emotional wallop it packs may seem unlikely at first glance. With an incredible cast that features Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kristen Stewart, it’s hardly the film you’d expect would attract Hollywood talent of that pedigree. But they’re in it for Reichardt’s vision, and what a delicate and poetic vision it is, of the everyday lives of normal women navigating the everyday. Master cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt creates some of the most memorable and painterly images you’re likely to see in a film this year.
- Adam Cook, Vancouver International Film Festival 2016.
Beyond a sliding stable door, a muted but ravishing Montana vista fills the frame with horizontal ribbons of snowy peaks, blue-grey ranges, frosted plains and weathered fencing. In front of it, a lone ranch hand drops off feed for horses, immersed in her daily tasks.
Winding women’s quiet stories into north-western landscapes traditionally given over by film to men and their noisy Manifest Destiny is Kelly Reichardt’s speciality. But rather than the homeless roamers of Wendy and Lucy
(2008) or Meek’s Cutoff
(2010), the stoical, struggling heroines of this triptych of lightly linked narratives are rooted in town or ranch: lawyer Laura (Laura Dern) is dogged by her troublesome client Fuller, his hostage-taking dropping her directly into his revenge plans; businesswoman Gina (Michelle Williams) plots the perfect rural house to underpin her wavering marriage, seeking authentic local stones from an elderly neighbour; and a rancher (Lily Gladstone) gets a crush on night-school teacher Beth (Kristen Stewart), a frazzled rookie lawyer worn down by working two jobs.
Around the four sharply observed character studies, the landscape lingers without pressing in, to be picked over by acquisitive Gina, worked on by the rancher or traversed by the exhausted Beth. Visible through every window and car journey, the Montana mountains preside over everything. Shot by long-time Reichardt collaborator Christopher Blauvelt in 16mm, giving grain and subtle texture to the film’s slate-and-beige palette, they have a painterly look that’s never overworked. There’s a hint of Milton Avery’s blocky landscapes about them, as Reichardt has acknowledged. Looming large, they add to the film’s discreet echoes of north-western history, successive inhabitants signalled by the costumed Native Americans dancing in the mall or Gina’s townie hunger for the original sandstone blocks that were once the frontier schoolhouse. A meticulous natural soundscape underlines all of this, its outdoor silences embroidered almost imperceptibly with river splashes, birdsong, wind in the trees and the distant hum of a car.
Reichardt is a master minimalist whose style suits the short story form. Laura’s and the rancher’s tales in particular are delicate, pared-back miniatures that deliver both character and story skilfully. The three tales are taken from Maile Meloy’s collections Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It
and Half in Love
, nimbly feminised, and connected so lightly that they just brush past one another; it’s utterly unlike Altman or Crash
’s heavily interwoven plots. But their short span, coupled with Reichardt’s austere storytelling, allows us less time to trace the links between character and setting.
This only becomes an issue in Gina’s section, where the sliver of story and Williams’s deliciously tetchy and contained performance feel slightly ambiguous. Is this cheated-on wife simmering with suppressed rage? Or is she a selfish yuppie pushing others aside in pursuit of her ‘authentic’ Montana home? Or perhaps both at once. By contrast, Laura’s experience with Jared Harris’s despairing, life-swiped client is a beautifully sketched mix of frustration and sympathy, expressed in exasperated meetings and a slyly comic hostage standoff where the police cheerfully pitch Laura into danger.
What the triptych structure nicely amplifies, however, are the women’s plights and their tiredness, as they struggle with debt or loneliness, unhappy marriage or male neediness. With minimalism as an organising principle, characterisation is pieced together from scant dialogue, worn-in clothes or fleeting expressions. Reichardt shoots her actresses’ faces with the same lingering attention that she gives to the landscape – Dern long-suffering and game, Williams pursed and irritable, and newcomer Gladstone shyly eating up a bone-weary Stewart with her eyes.
This last story is the film’s best, a slender handful of scenes creating an emotionally engaging tale of infatuation, with Gladstone’s standout performance speaking volumes with a bitten lip or darting glance. It’s quite an achievement, in a film where the playing is uniformly excellent. Threaded through with the chores that the rancher undertakes daily (reminiscent of the fascination with the work of women pioneers in Meek’s Cutoff
), it’s a pitch-perfect portrait of loneliness and longing. Gladstone and Stewart infuse their characters with an exquisite awkwardness, which melts only during a late-night horse ride, a rare tender moment.
In all three stories, traditional ‘women’s film’ territory is traversed (infidelity, a disintegrating marriage, a near-miss love). But just as she made an innovative no-action western of Meek’s Cutoff
, here Reichardt has created a ‘women’s film’ that never tips into melodrama. Her stories pierce the viewer without resorting to violence, marital showdowns or any kind of over-dramatic gesture. Spare but wide-ranging in its concerns, quietly played but emotionally powerful, Certain Women
’s whispers are more penetrating than most film’s shouts.
- Kate Stables, Sight & Sound, March 2017.
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