Some movies punch you in the gut. Others barely graze the skin but gnaw at you long after they finish. Certain Women, the new drama by filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, is the second kind, a triptych about three women who exhibit enormous personal strength under trying circumstances, and suffer for it. Through their trials, it paints a portrait of a patriarchal society, told entirely without the filter of a male perspective. Women in the audience may find it cathartic. Men will find it revelatory.
Adapted from a book of short stories, Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy & Lucy) has found a set of characters and stories perfectly-suited for her preference toward minimalism. First up is Laura (Laura Dern), a small-town Montana lawyer with a desperate client, Fuller (Jared Harris), who won’t leave her alone. Fuller was injured on the job, and having taken a small settlement up front, he can’t get the larger payment he really needs. She explains this to him—many times—but he doesn’t believe it until he hears it from a male colleague of hers. Within a day, he has armed himself and taken a hostage at a federal building to try to get some answers, and only Laura has the empathy and compassion to talk him down.
That’s as exciting as Certain Women gets. The next section belongs to Gina (Michelle Williams), mother to a bratty teenager and wife to Ryan, her dull, burdensome husband (James LeGros). She’s the breadwinner in the family, and while he bears the distinct mark of a “nice guy,” he undermines her at every turn. He has an affair, although he feels appropriately guilty about it. In this section’s key sequence, the couple visit a lonely old widower to talk him into selling the gorgeous sandstones on his front lawn—Gina wants to use them for the home they are building. It’s a quiet scene that is almost entirely subtext, but when Ryan snatches her power at a key moment—clearly just to make himself feel less impotent— Williams shoots him a look that could cut those stones.
As a dedicated chronicler of the American northwest, Reichardt has always found symbiosis between her characters and their surroundings. In the film’s final and most affecting chapter, Jamie (Lily Gladstone) is a lonely farmhand who labors in the foreground of an ice-speckled prairie by day. At dark, she attends a night class taught by an earnest young lawyer (Kristen Stewart). They strike up a friendship that is clearly one-sided, and when the teacher doesn’t show up one day, Jamie travels by horseback through a cold, dark night to see her once more. Like the other certain women, she has the full power of nature inside her, but it has been forced inward, and the exterior is just too cold to touch, like the ice, the stone, and the impossible Montana sky.
Fans of Reichardt will be comfortable with the film’s reliance on symbolism, but for everyone else, it might require some adjustment. The story inches along with no discernible momentum. There is no big climax here—for women, there often isn’t. But those attuned to our present moment will find it familiar. Election-year developments have brought marginalized women out from behind their male abusers to share the realities of the female experience. Certain Women does the same, with just as much courage, grace, and humanity.
Certain Women opens Friday at E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row.