There’s a growing cult following for writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s work that I don’t yet fully understand, as I’ve only seen a couple of her pictures to date. As with the Michelle Williams canine drama Wendy & Lucy, perhaps Reichardt’s most well-known film, the recent release Certain Women didn’t quite hit me with the full, emotionally devastating force it has with some critics. For me, Reichardt’s work has the impact of an encroaching tide, not a crashing tidal wave. I leave her films quietly sad, subtly moved, but not rocked to my core. Certain Women finds Reichardt telling three separate stories in a loosely connected anthology, each vignette beginning & ending on an open, ominous note like the movie equivalent of distant, lightningless thunder. I understand how certain audiences can latch onto this less-is-more approach to storytelling and easily sink into Reichardt’s quiet, but confident filmmaking style, but I can never get past feeling like an appreciative observer, casually peeking into an uncovered windows as I stroll by unchanged, but intrigued.
Honestly, this is the kind of movie I would typically wait to watch until it reached a convenient at-home state of availability. There’s no visual poetry or genre thrill to Certain Women that’s especially enhanced by watching it large, loud, and with a crowd. I mostly turned up at the theater for this title because of the talent promised in the cast. Besides the consistently rewarding Reichardt alum Michelle Williams, Certain Women also boasts featured performances from Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern, two immensely talented & eternally undervalued actors I respect deeply. A great, front & center performance from Dern is always worth cherishing, considering the surprising rarity of her lead roles, but I have to admit Stewart’s inclusion is what really perked my ears in this case. Stewart has a quiet, measured presence in her dramatic roles I imagined would be a perfect fit for Reichardt’s own dedication to discipline & subtlety, an expectation that payed off nicely. Their pairing here makes for an all-too-appropriate director-actor team-up and, although I’ll readily admit I’m a much bigger fan of Stewart’s, I’d love to see them continue to work together on future projects just because their wavelengths are already so in sync.
Williams plays a contractor attempting to secure a delicate businesses deal for precious sandstone building materials she desires for her own home. Dern is a lawyer frustrated with an increasingly unhinged client who won’t accept the finality of a failed workman’s comp claim. Stewart, who is admittedly in the second bill slot in her segment, plays a young lawyer & night class teacher who becomes the unrequited target for flirtation from a lonely horse rancher. Each segment has stray themes and details that make them feel connected in a significant way: a shared character, a clear dichotomy between blue collar workers & their wealthy employers, the way men can undercut a woman’s authority without even noticing, etc. It’s really Reichardt’s understated gaze at desolate Midwestern expanse & small town relationships that makes the film function as a single unit, though. The routine of horses feeding, the dim lighting of strip malls & late night diners, a title credits scroll over a slow moving train; there’s a quiet frustration in Certain Women‘s imagery that links its individual parts together more than any of its overarching narratives strive to.
Kelly Reichardt guides this film with a confident command. As the writer, director, and editor, she holds a godlike control over the production that results in a work unmistakably her own, yet confoundingly light on stylistic flourish. Much like Todd Solondz’s recent anthology-style film Wiener-Dog, Certain Women finds a director delivering exactly what they’re known for, except dissected & presented in isolated pieces, almost like a career retrospective or an artist’s manifesto. A major difference, though, is that Reichardt’s work intentionally avoids grand, sweeping statements, so it’s all too easy to overlook the immensity of what’s covered in the film. Certain Women doesn’t aim for the earnest lyricism of an American Honey. It’s a very different portrait of Nowhere America, one deliberately dulled by an almost absent score & a filter of digital grain.
Personally, I usually look for a little visual poetry and cinematic escapism in my movies. Reichardt’s filmmaking style is a little outside my comfort zone, to put it mildly. I do think she has a great way of framing disciplined & meaningful performances from her actors, though. Williams, Dern, and Stewart all convey an impressive range of humanity here (along with Lily Gladstone, who is devastatingly effective as the horse rancher) without calling attention to themselves in a way a more obnoxious drama would invite. There’s a lot I admire in Reichardt’s work, but it’s the stage & environment she sets for her actors that keeps me coming back for more. I’ve yet to wholly fall in love with one of her films, but the dramatic performances they deliver consistently make the effort worthwhile.