Kelly Reichardt is our chief purveyor of the American western landscape, creating films such as Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff that also bring women to the forefront. Her latest, Certain Women, is a triptych of female-led stories (from three disassociated short stories by Maile Meloy) that examine this geographically located kind of woman and the unique dispositions that result from their environment. If Reichardt’s films have been desribed as remote or chilly, Certain Women has a more easily accessible wealth of complex emotion and intellect beneath its stoic gaze.
Each of its three chapters feature women not saying what they are thinking or feeling, whether out of frustrated ambivalence (Laura Dern), familial politicking and shame (Michelle Williams), or lack of relational knowhow (the gloriously present newcomer Lily Gladstone). With only circumstantial ties binding them, its Reichardt inquisitive and patient hand that make these disparate pieces feel like a complete whole. The result is fascinating to chew on as the film lingers, if not always easy to reconcile – the parts are mostly more incisive than the whole.
The more wide-berth aims Reichardt is attempting here allows for observational humor than we have seen from the filmmaker. Particularly in Dern’s droll take and the film’s decisive editing, the indifference of the world to human suffering big and small is the source of occasional dark humor that pops unexpectedly. Whether its indifferently dismissing the cheap concerns of an unseen student lobs at Kristen Stewart’s ill-prepared teacher or Dern’s exhaustion with her royally screwed client (Jared Harris), the film finds hilarity from our capacity and limitations of patience.
Which isn’t to say that Reichardt’s humor is cruel or judgmental. In fact, if there is an easy lesson to be taken away from the film it is patience itself; for the uncontrollable circumstance, for guilt, for our own longing, the journey from who we are today to the person we want to be.
While that meandering doesn’t bring the satisfaction of conclusivity or focus, it does provide a playground for rich fleeting moments of insight by the film’s outstanding ensemble. While Dern is most impactful to the film’s tone and Williams is charged with the most slippery internal conflict, Certain Women belongs in large part to Gladstone. Her isolated ranch hand shoulders the larger portion of the film but with the least means to convey her conflict. With limited social skills and perhaps not fully understood connection to Stewart’s untraceable law student, Gladstone projects an ocean current of need without direct dialogue or grand emotion to help her. It’s a hell of a fascinating breakthrough performance.