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

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

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.

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.


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