It’s often been said that movies, at their best, have more in common with poetry, than any other art form. Of course, that all depends on your view of poetry.
The point is, there’s something richly emotionally complex about Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. It’s a movie that doesn’t tell us much, and by so doing, leaves us with a glut of information. The film is an adaptation of a collection of short stories by Malie Meloy. There’s no real plot so much as characters bumping up against each other.
Reichardt centers her film around three women Laura (Laura Dern), Gina (Michelle Williams), and one known only as the Rancher (Lily Gladstone). The movie prefers to observe its characters rather than force them into settings with grand emotional payoffs. Reichardt prefers to see how her characters react to each other as opposed to reacting to things happening around them.
There’s a moment, in Gina’s story, where she and her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) are trying to buy some sandstone from Albert (Rene Auberjonois). They don’t have to pay for it; it’s just a pile of rocks in his front yard. But Gina feels like she needs to give him something in return. The whole conversation between the three only takes place between the two men. Albert continually ignores Gina.
It’s a feeling I’m sure many women must know intimately. Afterward, the three are on Albert’s porch looking out across the Montana skyline. As they stand there taking in the beauty of the landscape, some quails fly through his yard. Albert smiles and begins a monolog about quail calls and the different interpretations of what they’re saying.
Then Gina responds with her theory of what the quails might be saying. She does so in the same melodic way as Albert does. His response is a look, just a look. It’s a look of realization that the one person who actually understands him, he’s ignored because she’s a woman.
It’s the third woman, the Rancher (Gladstone), which I found the most fascinating. A more tender nuanced look at a woman dealing with her new girl crush, I have not seen this year. Dern and Williams are both great, but try as they might they utterly fail to keep Gladstone from walking away with this movie.
The scenes between the Rancher and Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart) are some of the sweetest, most awkward, and heartbreaking I’ve seen in awhile. Gladstone does the heavy lifting in the film; she acts by sitting.
The way her eyes light up when Elizabeth enters the room, the way her body perks up and she leans forward. She barely speaks four sentences at a time and yet she says it all with a look or a small smile. There’s a scene involving the Rancher and Elizabeth and horse, is just too sweet for words.
Reichardt has a touch of Yasujirô Ozu about her. There’s a sense of stillness and quietude that permeates throughout the film. Reichardt and Christopher Blauvelt allow the camera to sit and ponder a room while people leave and enter it. She allows her audience time to soak up not just the atmosphere, not just the gorgeousness of the Montana skyline, but the people as well. We get the sense that for her, the vastness of the Montana prairies and mountain ranges are gorgeous, but the real breath-taking beauty lies in the faces of her actors.
So few films allow for contemplation both in their characters and their audience. Certain Women allows for both. People do stupid things, crazy things, foolhardy things, and yet the film never judges them. Reichardt loves her characters and feels for them. They don’t all escape punishment or heartbreak, but neither is there a sense of judgment or misanthropic glee at their fate. They are viewed and portrayed as they are, warts and all.
If there is a theme running through Certain Women, it’s people looking for and asking for understanding. They don’t necessarily want love; they just want someone to understand. They want to be heard.