The sky reaches forever, the distant mountains beckon, and the roads stretch ever onward. This is Montana, as presented in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, and it’s as much a character as the women who populate it.
Reichardt sets loose her characters like intelligent wind-up dolls, which makes them immediately familiar. Like everyone else on the planet, Reichardt’s women cope the best they can with their lives, imperfect as they may be. They are the the type of women we rarely see on the big screen: women who are willing to take risks and accept the consequences.
They are, in essence, just like Montana, defined as skies and mountains and roads that will not be easily defeated nor call attention to themselves.
Laura Wells (Laura Dern) is a lawyer vainly trying to help her client Fuller (Jared Harris), a power lineman who suffered a calamitous fall but naively signed away his rights to sue. Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) is a business owner working to build a new home for her family while also navigating the emotional minefield of her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) and teenage daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier). Jamie (Lily Gladstone) is an extremely shy ranch hand who is attracted to preoccupied new evening-class teacher Beth (Kristen Stewart).
I’ve seen four films by Reichardt over the past 10 years — Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves — and what they hold in common is a reliance on the characters to tell the story quietly through their personalities. Despite the restraint they exercise, their individual strengths always bleed through and inform what happens.
Certain Women reminded me quite a bit of Old Joy, which followed two old friends on a camping trip and somehow managed to detail both their past and future lives merely by the power of casual conversation. The contrast between the beautiful yet restrictive forest in rural Oregon where the men traveled and the wide open spaces of Montana where Certain Women unfolds is striking.
The lead characters will not allow others to limit them. Laura Wells wants to help Fuller but she will not let him dictate her actions. Gina Lewis wants her family to be happy, but she will not let them restrict her movements. Jamie wants Beth to respond to her, but she will not force her to do so.
The performances are marvels of minimalism, with no one overplaying their hand. Only small touches are needed to flesh out the words that Reichardt has written, based on stories by Maile Meloy. The unhurried approach is complemented by Chris Blauvelt’s artistry as director of photography and Reichardt’s own talents as film editor.
Certain Women establishes its leisurely pace early, but it’s simultaneous with the introduction of people of interest who compel attention. The film lingers in the mind, not so much as a collection of stories but as a reminder of individual faces; there’s nothing so beautiful as someone who is determined to make the best out of life.
The film opens on Friday, October 28 at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano.