Some movies linger in your subconscious unlike any others. Certain Women is one such film and, in my estimation, one of the finest films of the year. I'm hesitant, however, to unequivocally recommend it to everyone. The films of director Kelly Reichardt (a supreme filmmaker) are an acquired taste--and I'm a fan but, through the years, I've seen audiences and even critics squirm or resist Reichardt's spare and sometimes rigorous style, with scenes stretching almost interminable lengths. Unlike directors such as Terrence Malick, Lars von Trier or even Quentin Tarantino, who often decelerate storytelling in favor of imagery, Reichardt uses her landscapes to frame an aching solitude or, conversely, an imprisoning tension in her characters.
In that fashion, Reichardt gives us Certain Women, a triptych of tales set against the generous skies and craggy boulders of rural Montana. For a film that appropriates such grand vistas but little action and less dialogue, I can't get it out of my head.
For Certain Women—her sixth feature—Reichardt put together her starriest cast to date: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern and Michelle Williams, the latter marking her third film with Reichardt.
In the first story, Beth (Stewart) is an introverted paralegal whose cash-strapped existence requires her to teach a night-school course in a small town located a perilous car ride away from where she lives. In the second, Laura (Dern) is an exasperated attorney legally shackled to a man whose workplace injury has sparked a streak of violent outbursts. In the third, Gina (the always-amazing Williams) is a woman with an intense desire to build a new home in a remote setting, while struggling for domestic tranquility with her husband and daughter.
None of the stories offer much physical exposition and, unless you to lean in and pay closer attention to detail, you'll be wondering for quite some time what each of the stories has in common with the others.
Of the three stories, Stewart's is strongest, primarily because of her performance. I have truly struggled with this young lady's acting chops for a good chunk of her early career (my eyes roll at the thought of the Twilight saga); but, time and again over the past few years, Stewart has floored me with her technique that's equal parts timidity and sincerity (examples: Clouds of Sils Maria, Still Alice, and the soon-to-be-released Personal Shopper and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Trust me, you'll love them both).
In Certain Women, Reichardt has again captured what I would call the "somethingness" of the Western U.S. In her previous films (often set in Oregon), Reichardt has defined her characters with physical or psychological solitude. Their lives are muted but their few, halting words and tentative actions beg for significance or relevance. Instead of the so-prevalent "nothingness" of their surroundings, many of Reichardt's characters occupy a "somethingness."
I'm happy to report that Certain Women took the top prize in mid-October at the London Film Festival and is a Best Picture finalist in the recently announced Gotham Awards nominations.
A word of caution, however: Certain Women comes in on tiptoes and features long swaths of inactivity. It's only after it settles into your subconscious that you recognize its deft fulfillment.