Review: Certain Women (2016)
Often, film scripts and screenwriters over-dramatise situations – and with good reason – to heighten tension, to cause more conflict, to create humour, or to pull on the heart strings of the audience just that little bit more than necessary. Mainstream cinema is hyperbolic: it’s an exaggerated version of fictional worlds which attempt to re-represent some form of reality. And, clearly, there is a demand for this - blockbusters command huge audience and escapism is more essential than ever, especially in this latter half of 2020! Nevertheless, it is refreshing to watch a film that actively approaches filmmaking and storytelling in a minimalist way.
In the world that Reichardt has created in Certain Women, it feels a step closer to ‘real life’ by doing away with the hyper-stylised mise en scene – there is no glamorisation of situations, places or people. Instead, long takes and naturalistic cinematography reflect a far more believable version of western America and the people in it.
Incidentally, the landscape in which the characters live in Certain Women is the first sight audiences see: a wide shot of a desolate, wintry landscape with a freight train going through it. The sound of which serves as an auditory momento for the first character’s story – the low-pitched horn and the shaking of the tracks can be heard almost as clearly from Laura’s (Laura Dern) law office as she speaks to her troubled client. Symbolic sound is present in each part of the filmic triptych, with a quail’s call repeatedly present in the second story – Michelle Williams’ character Gina even comments on it, saying that the calls sound like, “How are you?” and “I’m just fine.” - a fitting observation by a character who seems to suppress her frustrations in order to keep the people around her happy. In the third part, as Elisabeth Travis (Kristen Stewart) enters the classroom, each time her bag lands on the desk, the thud gets a little louder, and the sliding gate of the ranch in the same story is a repeated image and sound too as if to reiterate the routine of The Rancher.
Structurally, Certain Women is organised around three women: Laura, Gina and Elisabeth. In the first story, Laura is a lawyer with an extremely difficult client, Fuller (played excellently by Jared Harris), who is somehow overbearing and ignorant at the same time: he won’t leave her alone, but he won’t take her advice either. Fuller is a man struggling to come to terms with his trauma, and Laura completely understands how to deal with him – even under immense amounts of pressure she remains level-headed and compassionate. In the psychologically and physically tough situation that Laura finds herself in with Fuller, it would be so easy for her to be written as a hysterical, helpless victim, but Reichardt flips this lazy Hollwood-ised notion of a woman on its head and instead makes sure that Laura responds in the way that most actual woman in her position would do – with boundless levels of calm and reason.
Fuller does a horrible job of hiding his prejudice and the underlying subtext of their exchange in Laura’s office is that no matter how many times she explains the law and his legal standing to him, he won’t believe her because he doesn’t respect her enough – despite everything she has done for him. Comparatively, it takes just seconds for Fuller to accept the professional opinion of Laura’s male colleague. Outlining her exasperation on the phone, Laura states: “It would be so lovely to think that if I were a man, people would listen and say ‘okay’.” This line of dialogue may seem a little on the nose, but it’s a truth for millions of women who are just as professional, skilled and knowledgeable in their respective fields as their male counterparts.
Prior to this film, Michelle Williams has been cast in two of Reichardt's other films, Meek’s Cutoff, and Wendy and Lucy. Here, in the second vignette, Williams portrays Gina - a boss, mother and wife who is hopeful, modestly ambitious and melancholic (though not on the same level of melancholic as the devastating character Williams plays in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, which was released in the same year as Certain Women). We learn more about the character of Gina from Williams’ intricate portrayal of her through non-verbal language, along with the way that her husband (Ryan - James Le Gros) describes her. What she doesn’t say communicates far more than the dialogue does. In fact, most lines revolve around sandstone because Gina is attempting to build a house using ‘authentic’ materials. There is very little exposition for this story, but the impression is built that Gina has had to overcome a lot in her life to get as far as she has, and it hasn’t been without sacrifice.
Snow-topped buildings establish the time of year and potential place, with the location of the third protagonist’s story – Elisabeth (Kristen Stewart) – confirmed as being in (or at least close to) Yellowstone National Park according to a diner waitress’ shirt. Later, it is revealed that Stewart’s character comes from Livingstone, a small town in the mountain state of Montana. Despite understanding that “selling shoes is the nicest job a girl from my family is supposed to get”, Elisabeth overcomes her classist struggle and the accompanying underestimation that comes with being a woman from a low-income family and succeeds in graduating from law school and becoming a lawyer. Additionally, she takes a night school teaching job in a location four hours from where she lives to ensure that she is in employment. Just let that sink in: an eight hour round-trip for a temporary position! Whether this should be considered a mark of tenacity or stupidity is down to the viewer to decide, but this narrative arc undoubtedly presents the most tender conversations between Elisabeth and ‘The Rancher’ (played by Lily Gladstone) which are further intensified thanks to the lingering focus on Gladstone’s intimate eye contact, and in the way that she responds to her unrequited feelings. For a relationship shrouded in loneliness and exhaustion, it’s mightily captivating.
Kelly Reichardt wrote, directed and edited Certain Women. Her multi-faceted, auteurial input is evident in the way that a single tone permeates the stories of the four leading women in this multi-story drama where her style of filmmaking is typically patient and realist, yet completely fascinated by its subjects. The women who feature as lead characters, on the surface, aren’t extraordinary. However, given the entire context of each situation, and therefore the silent struggle within each one, there comes a moment in this film – or perhaps even after viewing – that audiences may experience a realisation that each protagonist is indeed doing something exceptional.
Verdict: Reichardt's steady and understated drama may not be popcorn entertainment, but it honestly portrays how empathetic women deal with trying situations. The casting is flawless and the performances shine with subtlety and sensibility.
Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬
Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡💡
This review is part of an Instagram Film event to celebrate women directors - check out the hashtag #womanwithamoviecamera to follow along for the month of September (and beyond)!