The Films of 2016: Certain Women

Thoreau famously observed that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  Kelly Reichardt presents a feminist twist on this idea in her latest film, which depicts the various and subtle forms of quiet desperation—frustration, loneliness, thwarted desire—shared by a handful of women living in and around Livingston, Montana.  Divided into three distinct narrative strands (it’s based on a series of short stories by Montana native Maile Meloy), Certain Women only hints at the thematic links between them, leaving us to consider how they intersect and diverge like the railroad tracks and stretches of highway that crisscross the film’s vast Western landscapes.  Those familiar with Reichardt’s previous work will not be surprised to find that Certain Women is a film of “empty” moments, narrative ellipses, and pregnant silences.  But the silences speak volumes.   

It also helps that Reichardt has enlisted a first-rate ensemble of actors to interpret her screenplay.  Laura Dern and Michelle Williams carry the first and second of the film’s three movements, both of which explore the emotional labor that women perform, often thanklessly, in daily life, as well as the tensions that structure women’s interactions with men.  Dern’s character, a lawyer, is plagued by a mentally unstable client (Jared Harris) who questions her authority and blames her for the loss of his suit, and yet nurses a childlike emotional dependency on her that she can’t completely deflect, even when it puts her in real danger.  Meanwhile, Williams plays a woman in the position of wanting something—a pile of sandstone located on the property of a moody retiree (Rene Auberjonois)—and having to negotiate for it without overstepping the bounds of her gender.  Dern’s scenes with Harris and Williams’ scene with Auberjonois are masterful in their attention to the details of male-female communication.  Dern and Williams both find themselves caught between, on the one hand, a conditioned reflex to show deference and concern toward men and, on the other, the will to assert their own desires and abilities.

The first two segments of the film are about women in relation to men; the third is about women in relation to each other.  Kristen Stewart plays a nervous, overworked adult education instructor with whom a shy local ranch-hand (Lily Gladstone) becomes besotted from the moment she walks into the classroom.  Something like a courtship—hushed, delicate, halting—proceeds to unfold at a gentle walking pace somewhat similar to the one at which the two women make a moonlit journey on horseback together.  The Stewart/Gladstone scenes are easily the loveliest and most involving in the whole film, a slow-burning pas de deux in which nearly every emotional beat must be communicated non-verbally.  Reichardt and her actors are working on a level of behavioral nuance that is almost unparalleled in American films today: the dialogue and gestures of Certain Women are so understated that you’ll miss them if you so much as blink.  Whenever Gladstone gazes at the cagey, furtive Stewart, her round-moon face seems to glow with romantic yearning.  Of all the fine performances in Certain Women, it’s Gladstone’s that you come away remembering—her glowing face, and that moonlit ride on horseback.     

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