Slow films are not necessarily bad. Sure, they require more patience than fast-paced Hollywood thrillers, but that can also mean that slow films can reveal a lot through very little. More than any other American director, Kelly Reichardt’s work is meditative and quiet. Her last film Night Moves was about domestic terrorism, and yet at abandoned suspense in favor of downtrodden characters who avoid introspection until it is too late. Even by Reichardt standards, her latest Certain Women is a big ask. Divided into three distinct chunks, it is about the inward lives of women in a depressed Montana town. The recognizable actors is a trick, since their characters are too unhappy and reserved to betray their feelings. This film has its rewards, which are more than modest, although its audience must meet Reichardt more than half way to experience them.
The short stories of Maile Meloy, older sister of The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, is Reichardt’s source of inspiration. She strings together several story adaptations, with characters drifting in and out of each other’s lives. We first meet Laura (Laura Dern), a lawyer whose client Fuller (Jared Harris) takes drastic steps when he realizes he cannot quality for workplace injury benefits. Laura has an affair with Ryan (James Le Gros), who is married to Gina (Michelle Williams). The sullen couple have problems of their own: living on a campsite, Gina and Ryan make an awkward deal over some sandstone with an elderly man (Rene Auberjonois) whose senility remains unclear. Then there is Beth (Kristen Stewart), a lawyer who is teaching an adult education class. One of Beth’s students Jamie (Lily Gladstone) develops a crush, except she’s all too shy to do anything about it.
None of the women in Certain Women say what they mean. They are too defensive and too suffocated by the gloomy town to dare betray their feelings. Reichardt takes the events of high melodrama – including affairs and an armed hostage situation – and whittles them until the suggestion of innermost thought is the film’s primary focus. Laura has sympathy for Fuller, for example, but she only tolerate so much of his instability and his misogynist streak. Gina receives no respect from anyone in her life, including her daughter, and of course she’s the only competent one there. Reichardt’s thematic purpose is familiar (many sit-coms are defined by mother knowing best), so what distinguishes Certain Women is its purity of vision. There are few extraneous factors here: on a superficial level, the characters’ lives are simple. Reichardt shoots her female characters so they’re isolated in the camera, with the gray exteriors as their sole accompaniment.
The screenplay and actors studiously avoid tidy resolution. Instead, Certain Women arrives at understated poignancy. Laura, Gina, and Jamie are weary, finding solace that they are in the right, or that they give a tough situation their best shot. All the actors, even the minor ones, hit emotional beats with limited dialogue. But for all the gloom and deliberate pacing, Certain Women finds its high point with Lily Gladstone, an acting newcomer. Her open, friendly face is a stark contrast to Kristen Stewart’s flinty, inward acting style. Their impasse, and Jamie’s acceptance of it, is heartbreaking and moving despite being only expressed through mundane conversation. Kelly Reichardt creates a storytelling atmosphere where the smallest gestures have the greatest depth. She finds it with fractured compositions, a grey color palette, and minimal music. Like all of Reichardt’s work, this film is certainly not for everyone. In fact, the best way I know whether you might enjoy Certain Women is if you made it this far.