There’s a fragile thread of humor laced through Kelly Reichardt’s latest drama Certain Women, that so deeply understands what it is to be a woman in America right now, that this female occasionally cackled.
With films like Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff,, Reichardt has built a defiant reputation as a poet of cinema. Her movies move slowly, like gentle ripples across a pond. But through the patience of her lingering shots, and the simplicity of her stories, she ushers us into the private worlds of quiet characters who contain stunning depths of love and hurt.
Based on the short stories of Maile Meloy, Certain Women offers three barely intersecting vignettes of women living in the small towns of Northwest America. We begin with a lawyer (Laura Dern), hassled by an ornery client (Jared Harris) who refuses to trust her that his workers’ compensation case is DOA. Later, Reichardt leaps to a jogger (Michelle Williams) who leads us back to an in-construction log cabin where her snarling teen daughter and humble husband shoot her uncertain glances. Last, we meet a rancher (unexpected standout Lily Gladstone), whose job caring for horses over the long winter leaves her with nights off and all alone. That is until she crosses paths with an exhausted and oft-ravenous night-school teacher (Kristen Stewart).
There’s an alluring simplicity to Reichardt’s storytelling, made up of subtle glances, subtext-rich dialogue, and all-too-common micro-aggressions. Certain Women is about being a woman, right here, right now. Each of her heroines casually and unavoidably brushes up with gender expectations. Williams’ working mom is made to feel guilty for pushing for the thing she wants, while a neighbor assumes her husband runs her company. When Gladstone’s crush leads to a big romantic gesture that plays out less than romantic in a naturalistic setting, viewers are urged to question how her gender plays into their reading of the pursuit thread. It’s Dern’s attorney who gives clear voice to the frustration of patriarchal double standards. After her frustrating client quickly accepts defeat when her male colleague tells him the case is hopeless, she sighs to a friend, “If I were a man, people would just listen and say, ‘Okay.’ Ohhhhhh, it would be so restful.”
Besides this one line though, the gender politics are gently shaped, and accented with a sly humor. The slight bulge of Williams’ eyes as her onscreen husband (James Le Gros unrecognizable and uncomfortably hot in a grizzled beard) nearly spoils a business deal. Dern’s exasperated sighs over her client’s ludicrous outbursts. But my favorite joke—a repeated one that sparked the biggest laughs—came in the classroom.
The focus of those scenes is on the blossoming relationship between Gladstone and Stewart. So, twice when a male student begins an instantly long and selfish question, Reichardt jumps away, abruptly cutting the scene and his inane prattle. It was so satisfying. Just imagine if you could click off the volume of the entitled assholes who ramble in your ear with no awareness of social cues or your low interest level? It may not sound funny out of context, but within Certain Women, it plays as one of the most satisfying jokes of the year.
All in all, Certain Women is extraordinary. Thoughtful and spirited, it reveals the too rarely shared stories of common women, heightened by riveting performances by some of Hollywood’s most underrated actresses, and a slickly sharp and distinctively female sense of humor. It’s smart and lithely lovely enough to be enjoyed by any cinephile. But to any woman who’s ever faced mansplaining, double standards, or insulting gender-based assumptions, Certain Women will feel deeply cathartic.
Following its New York Film Festival bow, Certain Women will hit theaters October 14th.
Kristy Puchko watched this and The Girl On The Train back-to-back. One is a marvelous film that uses three connected narratives to show how gender roles hurt women. The other is The Girl On The Train.