in Criterion Month, Review

Certain Women (2016)

I can’t believe I almost forgot to write my last review for Criterion Month! I was distracted watching a guy get his fingers ripped off in the latest Saw. It made me feel dirty. Not this movie though. Quite the opposite. Like Colin said in his review of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, the unassuming nature of some of Reichardt’s work is a warm bath compared to a lot of overstimulated modern media. Which is good cuz I need something to wash off all the blood and cartilage from these finger bones.

Certain Women is kind of like an anthology film. The film is broken up into three stories that are loosely connected by the fact they all take place in rural Montana. The characters are in each other’s stories but not in significant ways. For the script, Reichardt adapted three short stories by writer Maile Meloy, who’s also the older sister of singer/songwriter Colin Meloy of Portland’s finest The Decemberists. It’s Kelly Reichardt. There had to be a connection to Oregon somewhere in this film.

The first story is about a lawyer named Laura (Laura Dern) living in Livingston, Montana dealing with a stubborn client named Fuller (Jared Harris doing the weirdest American accent ever). Fuller was in a workplace accident that left him disabled and wants to sue his former employer. Though Laura explains to him that he can’t win because he already accepted a small settlement soon after the incident. The two butt heads and see another lawyer only to hear the same answer “he can’t win”. Fed up, Fuller eventually gets a gun, breaks into his old workplace, holds a security guard hostage and locates his employee records.

Meanwhile, the police send up Laura in a bullet proof vest to reason with him, but he just wants the records. So he gets them and gets closure that he was cheated out of a much bigger settlement through an underhand process. He thanks his lawyer for his help and tries to flee the crime scene. He is quickly apprehended. Then we move on.

The first story sounds bigger than it is. Really it’s no more than a series of interactions between a woman who wants to help someone but they refuse to listen. This is a common theme in Certain Women, women who want to help and make a difference despite being given nothing in return. This is true in the second story as well.

Gina (Michelle Williams) is an artist, I think? She lives in a big tent with her husband (James LeGros) and teen daughter (Sara Rodier). I can’t tell if it’s like a vacation home, or a loaner until they get something, or just a nice tent. Regardless, the couple meets up with an elderly man, Albert (Rene Auberjonois) with an offer to buy his rare sandstone in his yard.

Gina wants the sandstone but also wants to help the near senile Albert as he doesn’t have much help in other faucets of his life. Though he’s unfocused on the conversation and it isn’t until Gina’s husband makes an effort that they can convince Albert to sell. The idea is to use the sandstones for an art project or something to honor Albert. Yet he is indifferent. Again, a story about someone trying to help another only to be shot down at every opportunity

The third story is about Jamie (Lily Gladstone) a lonely rancher living in the small town of Belfry. One night, Jamie notices people heading into a school and follows. There she stumbles into a class on education law being taught by a young lawyer named Beth (Kristen Stewart). Even though Jamie isn’t enrolled in the class, or concerned with the subject matter, she finds herself drawn to Beth. The two start to meet up at a diner after classes to talk about their lives. The issue for Beth being that to teach the class she has to drive 8 hours roundtrip from Livingston twice a week.

The inconvenience of teaching the class eventually becomes too much for Beth to handle and she quits. Which leads to Jamie searching for her in Livingston. The two meet and Jamie says she just wanted to come because if she didn’t she’d never see Beth again. She then drives home, falls asleep and drives into an empty field.

The film closes out with Laura from the first story visiting Fuller in prison. He asks if she can write him occasionally, even if she has nothing to say. Gina has a barbecue with her friends where her condescending husband finally appreciates her work and Jamie continues to work on the ranch in Belfry.

The stories may sound inconsequential when they’re laid out like this but I assure you they’re not. So much of life is made of small incidents, interactions, conversations that go on to shape us, our outlooks, our futures. What makes these stories even better is that they never pander to conventional filmgoing expectations. Like in the third story, it seems like Jamie has a crush on Beth but she never goes ahead and outright says it. All of her feelings toward this person are internalized. It’s up to you (the viewer) to decide to interpret these interactions. No hand holding.

Great stories, great performances, and man, what great locations. I can’t recall ever seeing a movie set in Montana but it is a beautiful place. I haven’t seen many Kelly Reichardt films but she has a true eye towards shooting scenic landscapes. It’s all so postcardesque. Makes me want to curl up by the fire with cocoa.

This is the kind of film that feels like life. Not some movie-version of life. The situations are realistic with believable conclusions that help the characters grow. Yet the film is comforting. So comforting, I fell asleep twice while writing this post. Not because the movie is boring. Because it’s just so dang comforting. Much more than watching a guy get his fingers ripped off in a Saw trap.