Certain Women plays October 4 and 6 as part of the main slate of the 54th New York Film Festival. IFC Films will release the movie theatrically beginning October 14. Follow our coverage of NYFF 2016 here.
Certain Women is a study in beautiful landscapes and unknowable characters. Kelly Reichardt’s film concerns three distinct stories in Montana. There’s Laura (Laura Dern), a lawyer dealing with an unstable client; Gina (Michelle Williams) and Ryan (James Le Gros), a tense married couple building a new home; and Beth (Kristen Stewart), a stressed-out lawyer turned adult education teacher, who becomes an object of fascination for her student Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a rancher. Reichardt maintains a great deal of restraint throughout her presentation of these deceptively simple stories. Dialogue is spare, and we are shifted from one character’s story into another’s with no real warning. The film is admirable in how it presents rural lives without any sort of condescension or melodrama. There’s a kind of Zen quality to the leisurely pace with which Reichardt lets her onscreen lives unfold.
Idiosyncratic costume details reveal truths unspoken by the characters: in Laura’s first scene her shirt is half untucked (likely unintentionally) and Beth dresses like a preppy 1980s girl trying to look grown-up (lots of prim sweaters and high-waisted pants). Gina and Ryan are the least interesting characters here—a married couple with communication issues seems a touch too obvious for Reichardt’s enigmatic settings, and Williams appears too young to have a teenage daughter. One gets the sense that Dern’s or Stewart’s stories could sustain their own films. As usual, Dern is in fine form, particularly when she gives a look of concern. Beth and Jamie’s relationship, such as it is, is tense with unsaid words and class differences. A scene in which Jamie picks up Beth on her horse has the structure and settings of a romance but becomes all the more poignant for its withholding.
The landscapes of Certain Women are filled with calm blues and browns and seem to exist outside of time. The interiors, on the other hand, are mostly dark and depressing. Beth’s classroom is the very picture of underfunded institutional bleakness and the plains make for a striking contrast. Late in the film, Laura visits her client in prison. He asks why she hasn’t written to him. “I just didn’t know what to say,” she answers. In a more conventional, expository film such an answer might come across as disappointing, but here we empathize. None of the characters really know what to say, but Reichardt never judges them for this. In Certain Women the wide Montana skies say more than words.