Friday, November 04, 2016
CERTAIN WOMEN (Kelly Reichardt, 2016)
Although the vignettes in CERTAIN WOMEN are fleetingly connected on a narrative level, they are strongly unified in telling the stories of small town Montana characters who want to be seen, or seen in a particular way. Their personal and professional invisibility does not extend from a lack of trying. In fact, it’s because their efforts go unacknowledged or are rebuffed that their exasperation grows. In each story writer-director Kelly Reichardt provides the space to observe these women closely and empathize with what they are thinking and feeling regardless of if they express such things in a demonstrative way.
CERTAIN WOMEN is comprised of three stories, each about a woman with thwarted desires. In the first segment Laura Wells (Laura Dern) is a lawyer with an insistent client who refuses to accept that he has no further recourse in an injury claim against his employer. Fuller (Jared Harris) has been doggedly pursuing more compensation to no avail for eight months. He also can be volatile, leaving Laura struggling to get through to a man who doesn’t want to listen. In the second part Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) is building a new home with her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) and wants to purchase the native sandstone that Albert (Rene Auberjonois), an old man they know, has piled up on his property. Gina gets frustrated that Albert doesn’t appear to be interested in talking to her and that Ryan undermines her in the conversation. The third story focuses on a rancher (Lily Gladstone) who randomly wanders into an adult education course on school law taught by Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart). The rancher has no interest in the subject but is curious in getting to know Beth, who makes a four-hour drive each way twice a week to lead the class.
Laura wants her professional expertise to be respected and heard. Gina wishes not to be thought of like a boss by her husband and daughter and needs Albert to recognize her presence. The rancher is lonely and wants Beth to understand the affection she feels. CERTAIN WOMEN benefits from being, top to bottom, surely one of the best acted films of the year. Notice the internal conflict in Dern as she reluctantly gives a ride to Fuller and wrestles with when and how to tell him off as he voices his anger about the situation he’s in. You can see her doing the calculations of how to deal with a client who values a man’s opinion much more. Williams’ excellence comes in having a full awareness of what is happening around Gina and adapting to what she thinks others want while not showing her cards. With Stewart and Gladstone there’s the tension between someone not self-conscious and one who is hyper-aware of her feelings and tamps them down so as not to be embarrassed. So much of CERTAIN WOMEN is transmitted by watching these actresses think and interact with their environments.
Beyond the broader concerns of the characters, Reichardt is interested in capturing the small details, gestures that speak to the humanity and quirks of the individuals. At a diner Beth wipes her mouth with the napkin still wrapped around the silverware. Laura leaves half of her blouse untucked after a rush to return to work after a midday affair. The dumb, self-involved questions in the night classes provide funny punctuation to the the end of those scenes. Reichardt is so good at building the characters through these subtle movements and silence that whole existences seem to be realized in just slices of life.