Certain Women initially interested me because of its cast, but I was not in a hurry to see it, because there are only so many hours in the day, until The Criterion Collection announced they would be adding it to the collection. It is often intentional that I ignore most reviews because my tastes seldom mirror most of the viewing audience. And I think that is why you come here. But I consider a Criterion release as a stamp indicating that a film deserves priority.
The expanses of the American West take center stage in this intimately observed triptych from Kelly Reichardt. Adapted from three short stories by Maile Meloy and unfolding in self-contained but interlocking episodes, Certain Women navigates the subtle shifts in personal desire and social expectation that unsettle the circumscribed lives of its characters: a lawyer (Laura Dern) forced to subdue a troubled client; a wife and mother (Michelle Williams) whose plans to construct her dream home reveal fissures in her marriage; and a night-school teacher (Kristen Stewart) who forms a tenuous bond with a lonely ranch hand (Lily Gladstone), whose longing for connection delivers an unexpected jolt of emotional immediacy. With unassuming craft, Reichardt captures the rhythms of daily life in small-town Montana through these fine-grained portraits of women trapped within the landscape’s wide-open spaces.
I am not familiar with the source material by Maile Meloy or the filmmaking of Kelly Reichardt so I was going in with a cast list and the confidence of Criterion. I was not let down, but, can easily see why many cinema goers might be. The film is very slow and very quiet; while many folks will see this as a weakness I see it as a strength. Most of the films that are released rarely give a viewer a moment to catch their breath and never give a moment to meditate on the emotional complexity of silence. Certain Women offers a level of complexity in which it gives the viewer everything they need as well as nothing at all.
The film is a series of abstract paintings hung in a museum with little more than a title to let the patrons decide how much they will care about the characters at whom they are staring. The three main cast members, Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kristen Stewart, deliver the exact performances their characters require. The three vignettes, which structure the film, have vague and unimportant connections to make the three stories into one whole moment.
In many ways the film is a throwback to Bela Tarr’s Satantango, though much, much, shorter. The more you think you should know about a character the less you will be willing participant, whether you like it or not, films like this actively try to distance themselves from the audience, they recognize that not every film has to, or has any obligation to, make a character relatable. You are here to see, to feel, not to interact; these people are not you.
While the performances in this film are precious, the greatest achievement, in my eyes, is the cinematography. From the very first shot I was engaged in what I expected to be one of the most picturesque films in years. I see this as the outcome of two aspects, the first, as I mentioned, is that the shots are given time to breath, there aren’t any, in my memory, quick edits, no 47 shots and angles of Michelle Williams lifting a brick, the shots start early and end late. The second is that it was actual film and they grain is present from the opening shot of the train rolling into town.
That train, and I am not smart enough to have noticed this until being told as much by Ms. Reichardt, plays an enormous part in the sound design of the film. Sound design, when done right, will enhance the experience. Throughout most of the film you will barely notice a score, there is at least one moment when you do and you realize that you didn’t notice its absence, nor it assumed necessity. Much of the traditional score is made up of ambient hum of the trains or the wind whistling between the buildings.
Certain Women is a very well-constructed film that many people find a boring time-suck, which it is no, but, I do respect people who feel that way. This film is not crafted for wide-release. It is made for people who cherish high, abstract, art in the movies. While you may disagree with me on this I also think that the film could be a good gateway film introduce people to the other side of cinema.
- New 2K digital transfer, supervised by director Kelly Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New interviews with Reichardt and executive producer Todd Haynes
- New interview with Maile Meloy, author of the stories on which the film is based
- PLUS: An essay by critic Ella Taylor
Director: 10 – Cinematography: 10 – Edit: 6 – Parity: 6 – Main performance: 10 – Else performance: 6 – Score: 6 – Sound: 10 – Story: 8 – Script: 8 – Effects: 5 – Design: 6 – Costumes: 6 – Keeps interest: 10 – Lasting: 10