If Certain Women feels empty it is almost certainly by design. What better way to ring in Women’s History month than with this collection of stories regarding the diminishing effect the patriarchy has in the modern age? Kelly Reichardt is one of modern cinema’s leading formalists, exploring the place of women in society within her framings, her edits. The motivations of men are almost absent from the picture, but why include their perspectives when their desires are so clearly read over the fractured lives of the women in their wake.
Based on three very loosely interconnected short stories by Maile Meloy, Reichardt returns again to the plains to inspect the lives of those in the small town of Livingston, Montana. Laura Dern plays Laura Wells, a lawyer who it is just assumed will take all the responsibility, when a male client of hers with a failed civil suit starts acting out. Michelle Williams plays Gina Lewis, a wife and mother, attempting to get construction started on a family house, on their own plot of land, a job that would go quicker if it were not for the constant undermining of her dream. Kristen Stewart plays Beth Travis, a graduate lawyer who inadvertently takes a job teaching a night class in school law in a town an eight hour round trip away; Jamie (Lily Gladstone) a local ranch hand, becomes a source of comfort for the five minutes she has for dinner inbetween teaching and driving home.
That’s the setup, don’t go into the film looking for revelation and happenstance, there ain’t no point where these three stories converge in a moment of climactic ecstasy. Heck, aside from a brief coda at the end the three events are not juxtaposed or intercut in a way that would be considered traditionally dramatically satisfying. But when you’re trying to tell a story about dissociation in the contemporary world, there ain’t really no other way to tell it.
The film knows where its gold is though, that third story is priceless, relative newcomer Lily Gladstone giving a performance that stands up there with the established stars of this joint. It’s distance from town life too elevates cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s spare, static frames into things of beauty. It’s metaphor too works slightly better on film than the others, especially the middle of the three stories in which one gets the sense that the meaning imbued into a pile of sandstone bricks stays just out of reach of the camera, waiting for a narrator’s voice to snap it into definition.
That third one though, and tragically I cannot remember nor find the name of the story upon which it is based, totally nails it. I think it’s probably the longest of the three too, though it certainly don’t feel like it. Its use of the space, the horses in Jamie’s care, the unabashed focus on the way society denies women pleasure, and the hints at the distant tidal forces that make all these things the way they are is just the purest poetry. Make it there and you’ll probably be in tears.
I don’t want to be the stupid dumb bad reviewer here, the one to say, ‘Oh, only proper moviegoers will be able to enjoy this film, get on my level scrubs.’ Let’s be fair, the pace here is sloooooow, not confrontationally, experimentally slow, just real real slow. And I get that’s not for everyone. It’s not like the film gives you nothing, every step around the corner is bringing something new: Jared Harris’ performance in that first act, his chemistry with Dern, life and humour that keep the flick from becoming a dour behemoth. It’s just that these things come slow, and you know what, if that ain’t for you, it ain’t for you.
It hooked me though, in whatever way it had, I wasn’t there at first but it was so slyly convincing that it found its way into me by the time it mattered. Without that, without the iron-clad commitment to its themes and the methods chosen to convey them to the audience I just can’t see it working. As it is, we get to that final coda, and then there was nothing else but it.
Image courtesy of IFC Films