Arts movie review

The mountains surround us

Certain Women shows the struggles of three women forging their own paths

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Lily Gladstone as Jamie from Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women
Jojo Whilden courtesy of IFC Films

Certain Women
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Starring Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Lily Gladstone
Rated R
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Three stories. Three independent women. One town.

Livingston, Montana, situated on the Yellowstone River and surrounded by the Absaroka mountains, is home to a population of just over 7,000. This small, unassuming town is where Kelly Reichardt decided she wanted to film Certain Women, an adaptation of three short stories by Maile Meloy, an American fiction writer living in Montana. Reichardt has made films based on short stories before, and in this case, she was inspired by the rawness of the characters and setting in Meloy’s three stories.

In Certain Women, Reichardt directs a remarkable cast. Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, and Lily Gladstone lead the three stories. First off, a middle-aged lawyer (Dern) finds herself constantly confronted with sexism. Her opinions on the law are seen as less valuable than those of the men around her. She experiences a hostage situation in which her client endangers himself and ends up going to jail. Nonetheless, she sticks by his side, even after he has shown that he doesn’t trust her legal opinion.

In the second story, a wife and mother (Williams) continuously stands up to the men in her life, particularly her unfaithful husband, on her path to build her dream home by the mountains. She is determined to construct this house exactly as she wants it.

In the final story, a law student (Stewart) forms an odd but endearing bond with a lonely ranch hand (Gladstone). This story first draws you in with the life of the rancher; her isolation, daily chores, and connection to the animals are masterfully communicated. In many ways, she is like a child, growing up and coming to a series of realizations as she finds herself seeking out the law student as a companion. These stories align in subtle but powerful ways, and a common character emerges: a flawed and strong-willed woman seeking purpose in her life.

Certain Women is definitely not for those who prefer fast-paced films. In most of the scenes, quiet detail is pervasive and dialogue is sparse. Besides the howling wind, the movie lacks a traditional soundtrack, instead allowing the pure silence to set the tone. Some of the film’s key elements are of light and landscape, which are often delivered with scrupulous attention to detail and multiple exposure to get the most impact out of the images.  

Reichardt’s unusual approach of presenting each story to its completion, rather than intertwining them, leaves you unsure until the very end as to what common theme or message will tie everything together. Throughout the movie, the rare moments of overlap between the stories, such as when characters from one story briefly cross paths with the characters from another story, coyly hint at a storyline connection, but then each story is allowed its own time to play out, leading to a greater individual intensity and depth. Instead of being intertwined through plot, the stories are connected by the the nuanced, layered, and subtle qualities of the characters.

This is Reichardt’s sixth feature film, and her fifth one was filmed in the American Northwest. When speaking about the aspects of the setting that she liked, she said, “There are mountains on all sides of you, which in many ways locks you in, and I think that really changes the way you might look at the world.” This mindset is reflected by the three women in Certain Women, as they each come to terms with the hand that they were dealt.

Certain Women continues Reinhardt’s examination of real people going through their mundane lives both defined and confined by the backdrop of real locations. The film’s subtle and thoughtful rendering of these strikingly human stories speaks volumes to the viewer.