Certain Women

Observing the ordinary with empathy, Kelly Reichardt's sixth film examines life's ebbs and flows on both a micro and macro level.
Certain Women

In Certain Women, writer/director Kelly Reichardt (Night Moves) may relate three loosely connected tales; however the six-time feature writer/director doesn't chronicle action. Instead, with the knowing eyes of someone who understands that life largely takes place when no one is watching, she captures the moments before, between, and around the events that linger in memory. Hers is a film not just of withheld emotions, or of everyday existence unfurling without any trace of fanfare, though it is steeped in both. Charting the impact of commonplace occurrences, she observes the ordinary with empathy, knowing that the routine nature of her stories and the relatable states of her characters is what also makes them revelatory. 

So it is that Laura (Laura Dern, 99 Homes), Gina (Michelle Williams, Suite Française), Beth (Kristen Stewart, American Ultra) and Jamie (Lily Gladstone, Subterranea) cycle through their days in the quiet foothills of rural Montana. While lawyer Laura tries to finalise an erratic client's (Jared Harris, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) worker's compensation case, Gina and her husband Ryan (James Le Gros, Point Break) endeavour to obtain a stockpile of sandstone from their neighbour Albert (Rene Auberjonois, Planes: Fire & Rescue), and Beth and Jamie bond when the latter, a ranch-hand, wanders into the school law class taught by the former. 

Adapted from Maile Meloy's short story collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, Reichardt's feature offers slices of lives, with each proving slender and dense in tandem. It's not the length of the three chapters that counts, nor the number the complications that plague her central players, but the complexity of their often-unspoken reactions. Accordingly, a hostage situation seethes with the same importance as a wife passively bickering with her husband, and with the same urgency as a young woman finding herself unexpectedly drawn to another. The details are almost immaterial, even though they remain immersive; it's the tenor and texture — and the combined melancholy of too few glimmers of brightness in a lifetime of cloudy days — that resonates. 

Indeed, with Reichardt ever the quiet, patient and delicate storyteller, Certain Women becomes an intimate, expressive psychological exercise in examining the ebbs and flows of life on both a micro and macro level. As a series of slow-building portraits of the female figures at its centre, it offers fleshed-out creations of deep-seeded thoughts and feelings, and of the frustrating reality of being caught in the shadow of a male-dominated society. Reflected upon as a whole, it explores the minutiae that binds people together and subsequently comprises the human experience. Combining the two requires perceptiveness and precision, with the filmmaker editing the feature herself and combining with her regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (Meek's Cutoff) to pace and frame the movie's narratively distinctive yet thematically linked plights with space and naturalism.

Unsurprisingly, both traits also characterise performances at the film's core, with Certain Women a feature of weighty gazes from an audience as well as an acting perspective. Just as Reichardt's penchant for prolonged surveys of her protagonists and the rural environment they inhabit forces the viewer to probe every weathered brow and intricate landscape, the subtle portrayals of Dern, Williams, Stewart and Gladstone ensure that their characters all but stare back. Each commands the screen and their part in their respective stories, while still contributing a separate piece to the broader puzzle. They're distinctive in a host of ways, yet similar in just as many, with the silent devastation plastered across their faces equally fragile and fortitudinous, poetic and piercing, and transformative and transcendent. 

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Certain Women
Director: Kelly Reichardt
USA, 2016, 107 mins

Distributor: Sony
Festival rating: 15+
General release date: TBC

Sydney Film Festival
8-19 June 2016


Sarah Ward

Tuesday 14 June, 2016

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay