On Oct. 14, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women opened in major markets, though unless you live in New York City or Los Angeles, there’s a good chance that you won’t be able to see it for at least another week or two. By then, the modest buzz that Certain Women received upon release might well have dissipated. (So far, Certain Women has grossed around $225,000 on 41 screens.) An ensemble drama set in Montana, Certain Women is hardly an easy sell — even the critics who liked it have classified it as slow, uneven, and “plain-looking.” The unintended result is that a movie like Certain Women can be widely admired by critics and still overshadowed by less difficult films with more hype behind them.
Let’s not allow that to happen: Certain Women is one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2016, and a signature work by one of our greatest contemporary filmmakers. It’s stuck with me ever since I saw it — Certain Women is the rare movie that actually improves in your memory, because it leaves open spaces in your imagination to be filled with your own thoughts and experiences.
Based on stories by Montana fiction writer Maile Meloy, Certain Women is an anthology movie of sorts, telling three stories that become greater than the sum of their parts. In the first story, a small-town attorney (Laura Dern) is struggling to manage a troubled client (Jared Harris, aka Lane Pryce from Mad Men) locked in fruitless litigation with a former employer. In the second story, a yuppie couple (Michelle Williams and James LeGros) attempts to procure a pile of old, “authentic” stones from a lonely rancher for their new dream home. In the third story, a cowhand (Lily Gladstone) feels a powerful attraction to a young lawyer (Kristen Stewart) that she struggles to understand.
On paper, admittedly, Certain Women is hardly scintillating. So far, I’ve described a movie about two lawyers and a married couple who buy a pile of rocks. The execution, though, is something else: The most universally praised section of Certain Women is the third story, a doomed would-be love story in which Gladstone, in a heartbreaking performance, makes fumbling romantic gestures to Stewart, who manages to stay true to the mousiness of her character while still projecting movie-star magnetism. But the other sections, while less complete, have also lingered in large part to how well Dern and Williams are able to convey their inner turmoil in such relatably human ways. While the stories in Certain Women are fragmentary, the characters feel like real people who have entered your life for 90 minutes. When the movie ends, they continue to live on in your head.
Favoring contemplative shots of desolate landscapes and characters performing daily tasks with a yeoman’s dull commitment, Certain Women veers about as far from melodrama as possible. (The most overpowering emotional moment in the whole movie involves a long, sustained, wordless shot of a person driving her truck out of town.) It’s typical of Reichardt’s meditative style: Her specialty is depicting people who don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves. It’s why comparisons with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, which have come up in various reviews, don’t quite fit. Reichardt doesn’t have much use for Altman’s habit of overlapping dialogue. Reichardt is more into overlapping silence.
Certain Women has been classified by some writers as a “feminist” film, presumably because the protagonists are female and the male characters play minor roles that are subordinate to the women’s narrative arcs. (Few films will post higher Bechdel scores this year.) But Reichardt, again, doesn’t quite conform to that box, either. The closest Certain Women comes to making a feminist statement is an early scene in which Laura Dern’s character laments that “If I were a man, I could explain the law and people would listen.” But Reichardt doesn’t follow up; the implicit message is that these stories are too personal and specific to function as politically minded archetypes. Her characters signify nothing other than themselves.
What I responded to most strongly when I saw Certain Women was how it recalled a seemingly passé form of filmmaking that I associate with ’70s New Hollywood. The deliberate pacing, pronounced silences, and potent melancholy reminded me of Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, which is also about people torn between wanting to connect with others and an inability to communicate. The Western setting is important, and not just because Certain Women automatically distinguishes itself as an indie film not set in New York City or Los Angeles. Reichardt evokes the physical sensation of loneliness by turning the audience’s gaze to big, empty spaces that stretch endlessly into the horizon. Looking into an abyss tends to turn one’s thoughts inward.
Certain Women is Reichardt’s sixth feature in 22 years. After her 1994 debut, the heist picture Rivers of Grass, came and went, she didn’t make her next film, Old Joy, until 2006. Along with 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, I’ll forever associate Old Joy with the the George W. Bush years. Though neither film addresses politics directly, the disillusionment of the time permeates those movies, in the same way those New Hollywood films absorbed Nixon and Vietnam by osmosis. Like Certain Women, they feel like short stories — Old Joy is about college friends who have trouble reconnecting later in life, and Wendy and Lucy is about a young vagabond (played by Williams) who’s struggling to live off the grid.
Reichart’s subsequent films — 2010’s anti-western Meek’s Cutoff and 2013’s eco-thriller Night Moves – branched out from the miniaturist character studies with which Reichardt is most associated. But her non-conformist streak continued — as Scott Tobias recently observed, Reichardt’s characters choose “the difficult path in life, one that takes them away from friends, society, or even themselves.” It’s not hard to see why an iconoclast like Reichardt would be drawn to these people. But gravitating to those who might otherwise be ignored threatens to similarly consign Reichardt to the fringes. She deserves better.