There's a reason why I and so many others respect Kelly Reichardt. Her movies are never flashy and they never will be; she tells low-fi stories that highlight ordinary people going through their daily lives...slowly. Slow isn't necessarily bad, and Reichardt has made enjoyable, insightful movies with deliberate pacing before, such as in Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy, and to a lesser extent Night Moves. But it doesn't always work. For all of the intricacy and subtlety of her direction, if the story Reichardt is spinning has no foundation to entertain then it doesn't matter, and that's where Certain Women unfortunately falls.
Some adaptations are better left on the page where an author's narrative flourish can enliven the lightweight with a clever turn of phrase or much needed context. Reichardt isn't the type to indulge in either, and Certain Women, which is based on Maile Meloy's short stories, just kind of sits there like a lump on a log, waiting for something of note to happen. Three loosely-connected stories follow a quartet of Montana women through their daily routines in exacting, deliberate detail. It's a rough time of season, reflected in the dark skies, rugged terrain, and barren foliage. The unpleasant view mirrors the dissatisfaction these women are experiencing, mainly because they aren't men in a place that values masculinity.
Laura (Laura Dern) is a lawyer having an affair with a married man (James LeGros), seemingly out of sheer boredom. She struggles to get the respect of her male clients, who would rather seek a second opinion from an attorney with testicles than listen to her the first time. Her biggest headache is a man who has suffered a workplace injury and signed away any chance at adequate compensation. His desperation leads to a violent outburst that has unexpected repercussions for her down the line. The second story finds Michelle Williams as a wife and mother who goes with her husband (LeGros again, making the rounds) to buy rock for a country home she wants to build. The entire story is watching her negotiate with the rockpile's owner (Rene Auberjonois), when he would clearly much rather deal with her husband. It's as exciting as it sounds.
But the third story reaches touching emotional levels of loneliness and melancholy that are truly heartbreaking. You end up wishing the entire movie could have been just the story of Jamie (Lily Gladstone), an isolated ranch hand with no friends, no family, and only a connection to the horses she works with each day. Her daily routine is upended when she happens into a night class led by Beth, a law teacher who accidentally agreed to it even though she lives hours away. Jamie is immediately enamored and the two bond slowly over diner dinners and carriage rides before Beth has to make the long drive home. There's a sadness to Jamie's urgent grab for human connection, but her story offers the film's only true moments of joy in the fleeting happiness she finds.
Reichardt is probably the most polarizing filmmaker 90% of the country has never heard of. I know some people who loathe her glacially-paced dramas, and others who rave over her intricate character studies. Her films are too professional to be hated, if you ask me. Certain Women is exquisitely shot, and features lived-in performances by all of these talented actresses. Although it's Gladstone who emerges with her devastating and ultimately absorbing portrayal, giving us a glimpse at what Certain Women could have been.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5