Director: Kelly Reichardt
R | 1h 47min | Drama | 14 October 2016 (USA)
Playing London Film Festival 2016
Kelly Reichardt films don't come around too often, but when they do, the Smoke Screen regards them like precious stones, to be treasured. Her new three-part drama, Certain Women, adapted from Montana-native Maile Meloy’s short stories, is another quietly intelligent study of women struggling with their own crises and self-doubts. It reunites Reichardt with Michelle Williams (her collaborator on Wendy & Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff), but also sees sterling work come from Laura Dern, and another in a growing catalogue of interesting turns from Twilight star (and how far away Twilight now seems) Kristen Stewart. And if that wasn’t enough, newcomer Lily Gladstone, cast opposite Stewart in the last of the three stories, also impresses. Reichardt knows how to create a sense of mood and place too, using the Montana landscapes to craft a backdrop for her characters of flinty, wintry isolation where people seem very alone.
The film is split across three sections, each exploring the lives of three very different women in Livingstone, Montana, a town of only 7,000 residents. Their residency (permanent or otherwise) in the same town is pretty much the only thing that connects them physically, but there is a spiritual connection too; each of these women are dealing with their own internal struggles, each is not quite living the life they expected they would, and are unsure how to get from here to there. Laura Dern’s lawyer is conducting a surreptitious lunchtime affair with a married man while defending disgruntled construction worker Fuller (Jared Harris) in his workplace accident suit. She seems dutiful and committed, but when Fuller snaps and takes hostages in order to highlight his exploited situation, she finds her self caught up in a pleasingly Coen-esque farce of a negotiation (complete with an overly-nice, totally unflappable Sheriff cheerily suiting her up with body armour), and has to face the possibility she didn’t believe in her client as fully as she could have. It is great to see Dern at work again, and this story maintains a nice shift between black comedy and tension.
In the second story, Michelle Williams plays Gina, a hippy type with a penchant for living out in highly-advanced bespoke tents with her husband Ryan (the man we saw Dern sleeping with), but our sympathies for this ‘perfect’ family start to shift when it starts to look like they are exploiting the fragile mind of elderly resident Albert, who’s large supply of junk sandstone in his back yard they want to get; for nothing. Probably the most opaque of the three tales, there is a kind of “passing of the torch” subtext here, as Albert surrenders his stone to a new generation who’s ideas about ‘authenticity’ don’t necessarily extend to involve a real emotional connection to this land around them. It is tempting to read into the tensions between Gina and Ryan some subconscious knowledge of his philandering too.
The last story is perhaps the most impactful, and will inevitably be compared to Brokeback Mountain given the isolated, rural setting and subject matter dealing with hidden, frustrated desires. Native American actor Lily Gladstone gives a heart-wrenching performance as lonely ranch hand Jamie, who enrols in a night school course on a whim, only to develop confusing desires for the new, from-out-of-town supply teacher Beth (Kristen Stewart). Jamie works on a horse ranch on the plains, a hauntingly beautiful place to be in the winter, but her physical skills are no guide to this new emotional fireball inside her. This leaves her looking both frightened and over-eager in Beth’s presence, as she takes more and more opportunities to spend boundary-blurring time with her teacher, offering her horse rides to her car and spending brief snatches with her in the only diner on the route home. For her part Stewart makes Beth a mix of intelligence, quiet self-doubt and world-weariness, with her character revealing to us a mercilessly insecure work routine that seems to sum up the physical cost this tough part of America demands: four-hour commutes, two jobs and a night course commitment that requires she actually teach herself school law the evening before, as she doesn’t know the subject at all. This leaves her about five minutes for personal time, and it is that five minutes that Jamie hopes she can be part of. It already feels like a doomed quest.
This won’t be a film for those who want regular emotional fireworks, or to have onscreen characters introduced with a surrounding blanket of complete context. This really is a slow-burning, melancholic work where gestures, glances and snippets of dialogue are all we have to go on when judging who these women are, and where they are likely to end up after the credits roll. If you come ready for that then Reichardt’s nuanced, well-acted film will satisfy immensely.