Certain Women | reviews, news & interviews
Low-key but mesmerising American indie exploring the lives of four disparate women
From the opening shot of a distant train making its slow journey toward the camera across flat plains ringed by Montana’s mountains, the audience knows they’re in for one of those subtle, low-key American art films. Kelly Reichardt, who doesn’t just direct her movies but edits and writes them too, is the queen of the slow-burn 21st-century Western. Subtly feminist, she paints a portrait of women making their way in a male landscape, steeped in pioneer history and overshadowed by economic disappointment.
Certain Women is adapted from three short stories by Marile Meloy, but it could have been Raymond Carver or Lydia Davis providing the source material. Over the course of the film we meet four women whose lives overlap but never truly connect. Economical with dialogue and generous with pauses, Reichardt introduces us first to Laura Dern, musing in a motel bed after a lunchtime liaison with someone else’s husband. She dresses and gets back to her office job as a lawyer in a small town where her most persistent client, Fuller (Jared Harris), won’t accept that his claim for further compensation for a building accident is a hopeless cause. Reichardt is not afraid of shooting her star actresses from unflattering camera angles or dressing them in dumpy boots and dismal coats; their reward is to be given space and time to produce performances that show their full range. Her collaborator on Meek’s Cutoff, Michelle Williams (pictured above) plays Gina, a woman determined to build her family a house from a pile of stones left over from a long-demolished school. She’s met with indifference from her surly daughter and duplicitous husband (James le Gros).
Kristen Stewart is a revelation as Beth, an outsider drafted in to teach an evening class in the basics of school law to a lacklustre collection of teachers twice her age. It’s her best performance since Still Alice. Lily Gladstone makes her debut as Jamie, a native American rancher whose more at home with horses than people. She appears to have stumbled into Beth’s class-room by mistake, and from there into unrequited love.
Reichardt uses the poetry of rhyming images – characters gaze through picture windows on to the wintry landscape, are framed in close up through grubby car windscreens and look out on the street from corner diners. Shot on 16mm film, Certain Women has the grainy look of an early Altman or Cimino in its slow survey of the Midwest. There are echoes too of the work of the great American photographers, Robert Frank and Stephen Shore. As well as camp fires and horses, there are forays into strip lit shopping malls where children dress up as native Americans to entertain dispirited shoppers.
It's a far more authentic glimpse of the jumble of old-new modern day America than the British director David MacKenzie managed in the overrated Hell or High Water. Most importantly, Reichardt asks her audience to take their time and not just observe the picture but to listen to the sounds that echo throughout the film - the far-away hoot of a train, the call of a quail in the fields, a car engine struggling to turnover. Not a movie filled with laughs, action or startling revelations but one that sticks in the memory and impresses with its subtlety.
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