Film

In 'Certain Women', Class-Based Identities Are Contended with Under Montana's Vast Icy Skies

Laura Dern in Certain Women (© IFC Films / IMDB)

A minor masterpiece, Certain Women is a profound meditation on the ways people temporarily buoy themselves from life's banalities, injustices, and disappointments.

Based on Maile Meloy's short story compilations Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, Director Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women uses a triptych format to interweave the distinct stories of four Montana women repressed by their jobs, families, and surrounding patriarchal norms. It is a deeply American film which explores the value of lives shackled by class-based identities.



Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt

Cast: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart

(Film Science)

Criterion Release date: 19 Sep 17

Reichardt — a shoestring budget virtuoso known for using Western style landscapes as a principal narrative device — masterfully utilizes 16-milimeter film to accentuate the vastness and iciness of each of the film's three quietly haunting tales.

In the first installment, Laura Wells (Laura Dern) is a middle-aged personal injury lawyer situated in Livingston: a sleepy town which, all fancy restaurants notwithstanding, is silent, isolated, and has a staid conservative ambience punctuated by a whistling freight train repeatedly passing through it. The film's opening scene introduces Wells during a dry, disconnected post coital exchange with her paramour, Ray (James LeGros). The scene, as with much of the film, is anti-climactic — the motel walls are drab, and the conversation barely polite. As Ray leaves, Well's sad half-smile is only seen by the audience from a small mirror at the opposite end of the room — a signal of a relationship which is fragmented and distant.

Wells' professional life is even more unsatisfying, as she has to rid herself of a gadfly client, Will Fuller (Jared Harris). Wells has to put up with Fuller's stubborn (and increasingly antagonistic) insistence that the law must be fair; that regardless of procedures which clearly say otherwise, there must be a way for him to recover injury damages from a construction employer's faulty site design.

Dern provides an expressive, solemn portrayal of a routine day in the life of an average lawyer, which is a welcome contrast to the exaggeratedly grandiose fast talking court room bravado which comprises most legal dramas. Highlights include Wells' barely muffled outrage when Fuller readily accepts a male counterpart's interpretation of the law, which was exactly the same as Wells' repeat recitations of it. Later on, when Fuller pleas for compassion by detailing the brutal side effects of his head injury, Well's facial expression –- full of barely contained remorse — is a precise portrayal of lawyers' struggles to repress compassion in order to maintain a distant professional relationship.

Michelle Williams(© IFC Films / IMDB)

Wells' inability to find emotional satiation within her job dovetails nicely with the second story, in which Gina (Michelle Williams) tries to find contentment within her emotionally disconnected yuppy family by building a house with authentic sandstone.

First seen in body hugging workout spandex, with her flaxen hair wrapped in a tightly coiled bun, Gina is a walking poster for fitness. Except rather than sip on an energy drink, Gina covertly puffs a cigarette well away from her family's sight. Watch how Williams — an actress who exudes emotion through silent mannerisms — goes the extra mile to capture Gina digging that cigarette into the ground, with the obsessive thoroughness of someone desperate to keep her delicate image intact.

Indeed, Gina is so firmly entrenched in her exercise guru suburban colonist identity that she simply cannot let herself go, not even to her own family. Her husband, Ray — last seen canoodling with Wells in Livingston — can't even get her to crack a smile. Her bratty teenage daughter, who has an Android tethered to her hand, isn't even going to bother to try.

Only the authentic sandstone which sits outside a senile elderly man's home (Rene Auberjonois) seems to soften Gina's eyes and put a smile on her face. At one point upon realizing the old man may not have his wits about him during negotiations to acquire it, Gina looks out the window at the sandstone. A wide shot captures the sandstone as nothing but a tiny pile amid a vast, gray void which represents Gina's life. While the audience knows this, Gina doesn't — she beams at the site of the insufficient filler — thereby emphasizing an even greater feeling of disconnect between Gina's image and her reality.

Lily Gladstone(© IFC Films / IMDB)

The third story makes the triptych come around full circle. The two lead characters are a quiet rancher (Lily Gladstone) living in Belfry, Montana, and Beth, a newly admitted attorney situated four hours away in Livingston (Kristen Stewart). Beth has been commuting to Belfry twice a week to teach an adult education night course she prematurely took before landing a firm job.

They meet at Beth's class (the rancher attends simply because she is bored), and form what the rancher treats as a courtship over quick dinner runs at a truck stop diner. As with most of Certain Women, the conversations are plainly spoken and full of poignant, unspoken truths. The rancher, whose days are full of immense land and gentle animals, can only stare admiringly at Beth as she talks about her disillusionment with her office colleagues. At the same time Beth is so centered on her new identity as an overworked attorney that she quickly changes the subject from the rancher's stories about breaking horses to her job.

Class divides these two sensitive souls, whose tones and affectations are similarly soft and tender. Unsurprisingly, the scene in which they finally connect is an impromptu horseback ride with no dialogue, where both characters' simply let go and enjoy nature. Stewart — a virtuoso at continuously pivoting between emotional restraint and revealed vulnerability – rests her head against Gladstone's back as the horse carrying them clops against the asphalt in the pitch cold night. Gladstone's face, beaming with pride, shows a better version of America, where fresh air and animals as more important than money.

It's debatable whether the rancher's subsequent heart-wrenching trip to Livingston should have concluded Certain Women. But the film's final sequence — in which Wells, Gina, and the rancher are revisited— is necessary to preserve the film's overarching meditation on the ways people temporarily buoy themselves from life's banalities, injustices, and disappointments. Perhaps this is all one can hope for, and Certain Women's extraction of so much humanity and visual beauty from this despondent outlook renders it a minor masterpiece.

Extras

Reichardt, Meloy, and producer Todd Haynes each provide interviews from enriching interpretative angles.

In the first installment, Reichardt details various directorial and script decisions made in adapting Meloy's short stories. Haynes provides an essayistic interpretation of the film, with acute analysis of the characters' decision-making and behavior. Meloy discusses notable adaptations from her prose to the big screen.

An attentive viewing of their interviews will likely lead one to revisit Certain Women to integrate the subjects' viewpoints into appreciation of the film.

Film Rating: 9

Extras Rating: 9

Related Articles Around the Web

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image