Cinematic Releases: Certain Women (2016) - Reviewed

I’ll admit I’m a relative newcomer to Kelly Reichardt and while I wasn’t completely enamored with her latest endeavor, Certain Women, it piqued my interest enough to double back on her earlier and frequently celebrated Wendy and Lucy as well as Meek’s Cutoff.  Something of a blood sister to Lynne Ramsay with the same sensitivity, care and nonjudgmental approach to their respective female protagonists, this year’s episodic equivalent to 2002’s Morvern Callar tells the quiet and loosely connected Montana set tales of four different women based upon short stories taken from Maile Meloy’s collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.  While entirely disconnected from one another with abrupt transitions between stories that somehow manage to make Todd Solondz’ juxtapositions far less comparatively jarring, Certain Women functions as a snapshot of rural Montana life from a female perspective.  Beginning with attorney Laura Wells (the always superb Laura Dern) who is entangled with a disgruntled client before seguing into married couple Gina and Ryan Lewis (Michelle Williams and James Le Gros) and closing on a Native American ranch hand named Jamie (Lily Gladstone) who forms an obsessive bond with a young schoolteacher (Kristen Stewart), the stories remain almost entirely separate yet are thematically linked to the chilly and mountainous region they take place in.  Less of a conflict driven narrative than an observation of strong minded women living out their lives in the desolate region, Certain Women is an anecdotal take on feminism that’s equal parts southern fried drama and new age mumblecore while gently hinting at the brief moments in all three characters’ lives where they step outside of the boundaries of their normal daily routine.

Co-produced by cult horror director Larry Fessenden (who starred in Rechardt’s debut feature River of Grass) and Carol director Todd Haynes, Reichardt’s 16mm film effort joins Haynes’ aforementioned film as another example of scenic beauty and lush color saturation captured through the use of a low grade film format.  Detail and sharpness aren’t as important here as heavy thick carpeted grain levels with many wide shots of mountain peaks looking like a dense living photograph, thanks to Reichardt’s longtime cinematographic teammate Christopher Blauvelt.  Music is sparse and occasional, if at all, with an intentionally subdued and unremarkable sound design that captures the naturalistic sounds of winds, a recurring motif of a train horn and particularly in the final chapter the sounds of horse hooves crushing the snow.  Performances by all four actresses are solid, conveying a myriad of emotions through subtlety and nuance rather than capital A acting bombast, although I have to say the least compelling thread of the three involved regular Reichardt actress Michelle Williams in a chapter that brings the silent momentum of the first and third segments linking the film together to a halt. Something of a slow paced portrait of self-actualization where whether the characters achieve their goals or not is beside the point of accepting their places in the world.  All three tales share a kindred sense of romantic yearning while limited to the routines of the world they live in, providing viewers with an insight into each characters’ personal dilemmas struggling with life in the harsh and barren American Northwest.

This is my happy face. Check it out. 

If there’s a complaint to make about the film, its that there’s no real payoff for the stories, only a continuation with a sense of optimism (or defeat, depending on your point of view).  Watching Certain Women I was reminded of Jane Martin’s stage play, Talking With…, which was a thrust theater play consisting of eleven ten-minute monologues featuring a different woman elaborating on her own individual life story.  Not because of the personal ordeals encountered by the women speaking onstage but because of how completely unrelated they are in summation.  Rather than making a grander collective statement on the kindred lives of these women, they are simply presented as disparate anecdotes which don’t leave much for the viewer to take away other than relating to the episodes that touched them the most.  The ensemble piece is as old as the cinematic medium and theatrical form of storytelling itself but only recently have we begun to see in theater and film a propensity for collections of completely unrelated and disconnected short stories that should add up to more than they do.  In the scheme of female director driven films concerning headstrong women or women in crisis, Certain Women tends to meander and comparatively is the weaker sex to films like the rural triangular romance Far from the Madding Crowd or the brilliantly hilarious Love & Friendship.  But it did ignite my interest in an auteur’s earlier catalogue that, yes, I can recommend to cinephiles looking for a more distinctly American voice in the independent film scene.


- Andrew Kotwicki