Sundance 2016: ‘Certain Women’ Reaffirms Kelly Reichardt as One of the Greatest Working American Filmmakers

Certain Women
Written and Directed by Kelly Reichardt
U.S., 2016

When the credits started rolling, I leaned over to my friend and asked him what he thought. He said he was still processing the film. It was an appropriate response. As we walked out of the theater, he remarked that as the night went on and he kept thinking about the film, Certain Women would end up either doing a lot or a little, but even if it did a little, it did it really well. That was also an appropriate response. Reichardt’s films are ones that resonate with you over time, revealing themselves with age and experience.

Reichardt adapts the short stories of Maile Meloy, separating her film into little vignettes following the lives of three different women in small-town middle America as their paths intersect and they each struggle to make their way. Certain Women rests alongside Wendy and Lucy in Reichardt’s filmography, as the film takes a quiet look at what it’s like to try to make it in America today.

Laura (Laura Dern) is a small-town lawyer who can’t seem to convince her client, Fuller (Jared Harris), that he doesn’t have a case against the corporation that left him with a head injury. She takes him to have a meeting with a male lawyer who tells Fuller the same thing, and Fuller accepts. Jared Harris adopts a convincing, natural gruff American accent and a natural weariness. One night, Laura is brought by police to enter the corporation where Fuller has taken a hostage. It’s through this story that Reichardt dissects the hopelessness of trying to make it in modern America. As Fuller concocts ridiculous ideas of how he’s going to get out of this, Harris makes it tragically felt. Dern does terrific work as Laura, giving a subtle indication of hope striving against these sad realities in her scenes. One gets the tragic sense in Laura’s vignette that however professional and talented she is in her work, she will never be viewed that way by the males she encounters.

Gina (Michelle Williams) and her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) are trying to build a house on some property they’ve just bought. Michelle Williams doesn’t get much time in this film, but brings a tremendous amount with her and leaves you with a great impression. The first image you see of her is smoking a cigarette in a jogging suit. There’s a striking contradiction in that imagery that tells us a lot about her. Throughout her interactions with people, she’s putting on a subtle face to get through it and get what she wants. The one breath of fresh air she seems to get to herself each day is that cigarette. It’s her one moment of privacy, a moment that only we get to spend with her.

Lily Gladstone plays a lonely farmhand working with horses for the winter by herself. One night, she wanders into a school law class being taught at night and strikes up a friendship with the young teacher, Beth (Kristen Stewart), who has to travel 4 hours each way for this job. Each night they go to the diner, and Gladstone develops an unrequited love for Beth. Gladstone delivers powerful work here, conveying isolation and loneliness in the quietest, subtlest ways. Our hearts break with hers each night as she watches Beth drive off. The chemistry between Gladstone and Stewart is subtle, natural and utterly believable as these two construct a connection – however differently perceived it is to the other.

Few filmmakers can wring so much character and emotion out of silence like Reichardt can. Reichardt and her cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt sit in the quiet moments with these characters, letting the privacy and intimacy inform us of them. Consider the previously mentioned moments of Gina smoking. Also consider when she waves at the elderly neighbor whose sandstone they are buying. He doesn’t wave back, he just stares as he watches a large part of his past leave. A shot of Gladstone’s character driving away becomes one of the most heartbreaking images this year, as Reichardt refuses to cut away from her, from severing the connection between ourselves and her. Jeff Grace, one of our most under-appreciated composers, has a sparsely used but immensely effective score.

It should be said that moments of natural humor do arrive in Reichardt’s film. As devoted to subdued emotion, there were plenty of moments that invited the audience to erupt in laughter. Reichardt is a prominent figure of the New Americana film movement – independent American films that focus on the deconstruction of the American dream at a ground level. Certain Women may not be her greatest film, but that’s only because we haven’t had as much time to spend with it as we have her others. In a few years from now, Certain Women will be looked back on as a special gem of a film. Kelly Reichardt is one of the most vital voices in American cinema, as few filmmakers can truly get to the heart of real people and what it’s like to live in modern America so authentically as she can.

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