It says something about the excess of masculinity on cinema screens (and behind the cameras), that when a film like Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women comes along, it feels so fresh and exciting. With her latest film, Reichardt, perhaps best known for her feminist western Meek’s Cutoff or the Jesse Eisenberg eco-thriller Night Moves, loosely surveys femininity in the small towns of the American Northwest. Split into three separate sections, Certain Women, which debuted in competition at Cannes last year, delivers a triptych of sympathetic portraits of everyday women going about their lives.
The cast is ridiculously strong, with veteran Laura Dern playing a lawyer drawn into an anticlimactic hostage situation, Michelle Williams (in another terrific turn following her role in Manchester by the Sea earlier this year) as a wife and mother trying to marshal the building of a new environmentally friendly getaway house, and Kristin Stewart and newcomer Lily Gladstone starring, respectably, as a young lawyer and ranch hand who form an unlikely bond.
Whilst the three stories are very faintly linked on a narrative level, Certain Women binds its characters through the vast mountain vistas that they exist within. It’s a film of missed connections, everyday injustices and mundane frustrations and Reichardt is more than happy to let threads hang unresolved, observing for a time before moving on. She recognises that these working women – each stretched in different ways – don’t perhaps have the time, or the headspace for the kind of cinematically satisfying introspection that we are used to seeing on screen.
So we are left with half stories and small moments of grace and insight; with the quietly designed portraiture used to examine varying states of progressive womanhood. When Michelle Williams’ character befriends an old man in order to relieve him of the pile of sandstone he has in his yard, we see her experience flashes of guilt, but the film allows her to bury it. Similarly when Laura Dern’s character is confronted with the hatefulness of her client, she briefly erupts, only to back down moments later.
This mellow, naturalistic approach is jarring at first, but as Certain Women settles into its own distinct rhythms, the lack of catharsis emerges as a virtue and it becomes clear that Reichardt has once again taken the generic elements of the western — a gun, a horse and the landscape – and produced a interesting counterweight to the genres overwhelmingly masculine canon.
Certain Women will be accompanied by ELI, a short film documenting the transition from female to male from filmmaker Sarah Jenny Johnson.