Review: Certain Women know what they want, but are too “nice” to go for it

Kristen Stewart in Certain Women

Kristen Stewart in Certain Women

Regular readers of Almanac Weekly movie reviews may recall that your humble critic tends to complain a lot about action movies for having too much…well, action. Disjointed, hyperkinetic screen images may dazzle the eye and raise the pulse, but they can also disrupt narrative flow when they mean to move it forward. Call me old-fashioned, but I tend to prefer filmmakers who don’t lead visually where my brain can’t follow. So maybe that makes me the ideal audience for a new/old, as-yet-unnamed genre that could be described as “inaction movies”: the kind made by director Kelly Reichardt (River of Grass, Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves).

Reichardt has been called “the last indie purist.” Her contemplative visual style is often compared to that of Terrence Malick, though she typically has a much smaller budget to spend on grand cinematography. And her low-key, episodic approach to storytelling evokes for some the works of Robert Altman, particularly his ensemble-acting pieces like Short Cuts. Reichardt typically trains her eye on the dull, small doings of ordinary people, set against larger-than-life, dramatic American landscapes.

Her latest work, Certain Women, was filmed in and around Livingston, Montana: a small city not too far from the Great Plains’ abrupt termination at the feet of the Rocky Mountains, where Interstate 90 heads over the Bozeman Pass and the Bitterroot Range towards Butte and Missoula. Wherever one points a camera in Livingston, those picture-book peaks loom tantalizingly on the horizon, while the foreground reality is bleak, flat and windswept. And cold: Sometimes the cast was shooting in below-zero weather. But that doesn’t deter the A-list actors who are willing to work for less than they can get elsewhere just so they can be in a Kelly Reichardt film. These movies will never make zillions of dollars from the megaplex crowd, but they are terrific showcases for actors who can make the slow burn, the longing gaze look and feel real.

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Reichardt, who teaches at Bard College when she isn’t off shooting a film in insanely harsh conditions in some remote location, has been quoted as saying that the stories she tells onscreen are “all about getting from point A to point B, about someone going from stuck to unstuck.” That’s a pretty good encapsulation of the predicaments of the women who are the foci of the three episodes in Certain Women. They are “certain” in the sense of knowing what they want, but stymied in their efforts to get it by habits of learned passivity and pacification that most women in the audience will doubtless recognize from their own “training.” There’s a feminist message here, but it’s subtle. These are stories of women with a lot to give who go unseen, unheard, because they don’t know how to demand, to feel entitled the way the men in their lives do.

Laura Dern portrays Laura, a middle-aged attorney whose married lover is dumping her while she fends off Fuller, a relentless, slightly unhinged client who has been injured in a workplace accident. Having accepted a settlement from his employer, he has forfeited his right to further legal redress; but he won’t take no from a female lawyer. Eventually Fuller – played magnificently by Jared Harris – goes postal, and Laura is pressured into becoming the mediator in a hostage crisis.

Laura’s tepid lover, Ryan (James LeGros), is married to Gina (Michelle Williams). They also run a business together, but Gina is mainly obsessed with building a home with all-natural materials (contrasting with the ticky-tacky plywood dwellings depicted as typical of Livingston) on a gorgeous streamfront site. Genial, passive/aggressive Ryan continually subverts Gina in her passion project, as well as with their surly teenage daughter (Sara Rodier). The situation comes to a head when the couple approach an elderly friend of the family (René Auberjonois), who has a pile of fine sandstone that he doesn’t really need, but would make a great wall for Gina’s dreamhouse.

Then there’s Jamie, a tongue-tied young Native American ranch hand with a gift for working with horses but no perceptible social life with humans. She wanders into a night class at a community college, taught by Beth, a frazzled young lawyer who has to commute four hours over the icy mountain pass to teach there. The two begin hanging out in a local diner after classes, and Jamie develops a serious crush on oblivious, self-involved Beth. In the latter role, Kristen Stewart goes a long way on the path of redemption from being a bad actress in sparkly-vampire movies; but it’s Lily Gladstone as Jamie who deserves to become an overnight star for her work in Certain Women. Though she has amazingly few lines, the novice actress’ face is a canvas on which the character’s every emotion plays with heartbreaking subtlety. The movie is worth seeing just to witness this breakout performance.

That said, Certain Women is not for everybody. It will likely bore the pants off moviegoers who prefer high-octane car chases to low-key character studies. But it will come as a welcome change from the usual Hollywood fare to viewers who enjoy deep, thoughtful stories that take their time in the telling.

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