Certain Women hums with a glum beauty, the sort that hovers, indistinctly, on a still field at dusk. Set in Montana, the movie never insists on the natural wonders that surround it—there are no ostentatious landscape shots—but rather sits with them, silently, as we would if we lived among such sights every day.
This matches the attitude of the women of the film’s title, each of whom is negotiating personal loneliness and mundane professional lives. The writer and director, Kelly Reichardt, has given women particular attention in most of her movies—particularly her masterpiece, Meek’s Cutoff—but here gender is the main point of focus. Indeed, what it means to be a working woman in this particular time and place is the thematic thread that links the three loosely connected plots (drawn from short stories by Maile Meloy).
Resignation hovers over each of these scenes.
We first meet Laura Wells (Laura Dern), a lawyer with an unstable, untrusting client (Jared Harris) and a skittish, married lover (James Le Gros). Ryan, that lover, is married to Gina (Michelle Williams), with whom he is building an elaborate new home on a nearby creek. The tension within their family—which includes a teen daughter (Sara Rodier)—is the focus of the film’s middle section. The third strand is more tangentially related, involving another lawyer (Kristen Stewart) who strikes up a friendship, and possibly more, with the ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) who stumbles into a class the lawyer is leading on teachers’ legal rights.
Reichardt’s camera often captures each of these women alone. There is a painterly shot (Andrew Wyeth comes to mind) of Dern’s reflection in a hotel mirror, as she sits on the bed. The mirror is in the far right corner of the frame, while the majority of the screen is dominated by the dim brown wall of the room. Later, Williams is filmed in tight close-up as she walks along the river, oblivious to the water rushing by in the background and instead consumed with worry. Gladstone, meanwhile, is seen mostly at work, bringing out horses, dispersing hay, closing the barn’s doors. Resignation hovers over each of these scenes, in both the visuals and the performances.
Certain Women keeps its distance; there isn’t much, in terms of drama, to interrupt the routine of these women’s lives. Although it is worth noting one unexpected, magical moment. One night Jamie, the ranch hand, decides to ride a horse to class, and afterwards she offers to give Beth (the lawyer played by Stewart) a ride to a nearby diner. Reichardt underplays the moment, though she does allow for a tiny visual flourish: as they pass a street light, its illumination radiates around the pair. Sometimes beauty can’t help but burst in on us.