Coincidences mix with connections in this thoughtful indie gem from the director of Meek’s Cutoff. With its strong structuring and complicated characters, Kelly Reichart tells a story of four women dealing with the burden of everyday life – and giving their actions storytelling powers which grow beyond the little things they deal with.
Kelly Reichart interweaves a story of four women. With her adaptation of short stories collection, Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, she tells us stories located somewhere in Montana, in between small towns, farms, and houses in the middle of nowhere. We start with Laura, a lawyer that struggles to help a man injured in an accident at work. Then, we move on to Gina, who lives an alternative lifestyle with her family and takes the job of getting the roof over their head in her own hands. In the last episode, we meet Elizabeth, a lawyer teaching at a local school, and her new friend – a rancher girl that craves other people in her life.
The film keeps episodic, but focuses on relations between the characters. We see them all through the perspective of their interactions; for Laura, it’s her affair with a married man, the respect she has in the eyes of local policemen, the struggle with her client. For Gina, it’s her family relationship, and the conversation with a man they want to buy sandstone to build their house. Elizabeth didn’t teach before; she doesn’t even know the education law that well, but wakes up every morning to drive to work for hours. The unnamed girl that takes care of the ranch is dealing with the upkeep of the farm and seeks human interaction to fall in love with her teacher.
Clever hints throughout the film also open the characters to the audience’s judgement. Our women are connected to each other, and the subtlety of revelations what parts they play in each other’s lives, even if they’re not aware of it, steers away from sweeping generalisations. It’s up to the cinemagoer to decide what they think of the heroines, but soon enough, they understand they need to wait for another piece of the puzzle.
The most striking is the performance of Lily Gladstone, who is introduced to us as a rancher girl. The weight of her solitude is unbearable; but again, when she’s paired with Kristen Stewart, she reveals the depth of her memories and feelings. By the end of the story, her actions fuelled by a possible loss have even more of an emotional impact than her scarce words. That pair’s impact is fuelled by reaction – with Gladstone and Steward crafting it successfully. Michelle Williams and Laura Dern also give us multidimensional, complicated characters whose emotional depth strikes us more and more with every word and gesture from the women they fully own.
There’s also a quiet feminist note in all this; Gina remarks that the elderly man doesn’t talk to her as he does to her husband, ignoring her every single remark. Similarly, Laura struggles to explain to her client that his case is lost – and a consultation with a man provokes a completely different reaction. The vulnerabilities of our heroines are handed to us on a silver plate, which at the beginning stuns us – but knowing our characters, it’s ever easier to relate to their struggles and choices. Laura demonstrates cold patience of a negotiator when it’s required, Gina aims to be the head of her family doing all the work to keep the family together, Elizabeth commutes every day to work for hours, her new friend takes care of a ranch all by herself. These are their achievements, and they shine in the light of issues they face.
Certain Women is a quiet, atmospheric film – but made with silent confidence, without a misplaced element. And it strongly relates also to the cinematic execution. The film opens with a shot of the moving train – and the train horns resound in the background throughout the movie. The colour palette is also similar; it’s toned down, drenched in beige, matching the nature compositions and shots of quiet small towns perfectly. That only helps to cultivate the mysterious atmosphere and keep the promise that there’s more to come – to finally leave you hungry for more.
Certain Women opens in the UK on the 3rd of March.