Intentionally quiet and slight arguably to a fault, Certain Women nonetheless is not without its charms.
I want to love Certain Women. I really and truly do. Even within the more independent filmmaking world, Certain Women represents a sort of breath of fresh air by its mere existence. In a sphere of film mostly dedicated to Sad White Men dealing with their Sad White Men problems in a low-key fashion, here is a film all about depicting the mundane lives of three women. And when I say “mundane,” I really do mean “mundane;” these are lives that are profoundly uneventful even when they are, by comparative metric, eventful. Writer-Director Kelly Reichardt, who has made her name with measured and uneventful interpretations of stories that are usually fodder for more traditionally thrilling fare, here adapts a few short stories by Maile Meloy and consequently works with set-ups that are devoid of basically any kind of dramatic conflict whatsoever. One story never acknowledges an earlier potential conflict generator in its own story, another simmers on words unsaid but never truly boils over, and the third intentionally deflates itself at the first opportunity in the driest possible way.
In effect, what you end up watching is less of a series of short narratives with clear beginnings, climaxes, conflicts, etc. and more a collection of snapshots of ordinary if lonely women living their lives. These kinds of lives just don’t get told in Film that often, not in this kind of frank and empathetic way, and especially not for women. Women in the rural-American Mid-West, no less! Dealing with loneliness and isolation in a world that often attempts to forget they even exist. So, I do want to love Certain Women.
I just can’t quite get there, though. That same intentional quietness and deliberate pacing that provides the film’s selling point is also its major weakness for me. All three stories touch on the same themes, have the same pacing, and are so intentionally slight that my mind couldn’t help but wander from time to time. There may be a tangible empathy here, particularly in the stunning final segment, but there’s also just a bit too much of a sedate distance to proceedings, where the film is purposefully avoiding anything eventful and instead filling up that time with very long takes where not very much happens at all. When the film is clicking on all cylinders, where its stories ache with a noticeable pain and quiet suffering, it’s not an issue. But when it’s anything less than that, either by not sketching that story’s protagonist deeply enough or holding an interminably long conversation that’s going nowhere in no particular hurry, then it starts to poke holes in the enterprise.
That, I guess, is my way of saying that not all of the stories are created equal. The first involves a lawyer, Laura (Laura Dern), dealing with a long-disgruntled client (Jared Harris). The second has a married couple, Gina (Michelle Williams) and Ryan (James le Gros), trying to convince a somewhat-crotchety old man (René Auberjonois) to sell them some sandstone that they can use to build their house in the wilds. The third, and best by a country mile, follows a lonely Ranch Hand (newcomer Lily Gladstone) as she finds herself drawn to a night school class and forges a connection with the teacher, amateur lawyer and out-of-towner Beth (Kristen Stewart). The second is the millstone, somewhat fittingly, that drags down the rest of the enterprise, being so slow and so uneventful that I found myself checking my watch frequently and wondering if there was a point being made at all with it. There is, it’s just that said point is made almost immediately and the segment fails to find any further spins on it for the rest of its run time.
It’s also the most dialogue-heavy of the three segments, or at least feels like it, and the most static. Strangely, dialogue often turns out to be a crutch for Certain Women as a whole. It’s not that any of it is bad, sometimes it even manages to provide some dryly humorous levity to proceedings, it’s more that the film’s most powerful moments come from a lack of. From words unsaid, from connections unrealised, from an honesty that can’t quite be reached. Gina goes off on runs that are more excuses to sneak a cigarette without Ryan knowing, whilst Ryan is revealed in the first story to be having an affair with Laura but her story never allows him the chance to finish his attempt at ending the thing, whilst the moment that the third story gets as close to an honest admission of feelings as its protagonists can, the resultant pause communicates more hurt than a thousand words ever could.
These are women who feel isolated from society around them, lacking in any real meaningful connections or any connections at all. Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography, which is low-key gorgeous for the record, goes to great lengths to frame each of these women as separate from the rest of the world around them, for that kind of isolation and enforced distance to become quietly wearying on the viewer like it is for the women themselves. How society renders them all-but-invisible in subtle ways that are only picked up on by those on the receiving end. Laura’s client only accepts the exact same judgement that Laura’s been telling him for the past eight months once it comes out of a man’s mouth, the old man that Gina is trying to buy the sandstone from often straight up ignores her and talks solely to Ryan instead, whilst the Ranch Hand deliberately secludes herself at the back of the class lesson after lesson and is ignored wholesale by the rest of the class members despite one student’s claim that “we all know each other.”
Rather than dance around the point any further, I’ll just come right out and say it: the reason that you need to watch Certain Women, even if the whole doesn’t quite rise like it should and its second story is just kind of dull, is for that third story. That’s where everything comes together – the writing, the measured pacing, the commitment to depicting the crushing mundanity of a lonely life, the empathy for all those involved, and the quiet pain of longing constantly flowing under the surface – to deliver a phenomenal half hour that builds to a closing oner which devastates ever more the longer that it runs. It also stands head and shoulders above the rest of the stories due to the performances and unique chemistry of Stewart and Gladstone, both awkwardly dancing around the central question of their connection with a tangible caution clearly born out of a desire to not hurt or get hurt that only serves to make those unsaid words cut that much deeper. Gladstone, especially, is a full-on revelation, particularly when that final shot comes around.
I kinda wish, in all honesty, that Certain Women were just that story, since then I’d be able to properly love it. Don’t get me wrong, this is in no way a bad film, not in any respect, even that second segment isn’t bad so much as I just found it wholly unengaging. For me, though, just under 110 minutes of this much deliberate slowness and intentionally minor storytelling was ultimately a little too tiring for me to be able to properly love. I’m honestly fine with that, however, and not just because I know that there are certain people who will absolutely adore Certain Women. When the film clicks like it does many times during the final story, the resultant cinema is enrapturing. And even when it’s not, there really is something to be said for its commitment to realising and empathising with the sort of uneventful (often) middle-aged female life that it squarely focusses on. We can’t all have dramatic lives. Sometimes, all we can ask for is to be acknowledged by anybody at all.
Certain Women is playing in UK cinemas from March 3rd.
Callie Petch sees what we’re gonna forget.