Film - Certain Women

On DVD now and Winner of Best Film at last year's London Film Festival, Certain Women is watched by our own very certain woman, Ren Zelen...

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writers: Kelly Reichardt (screenplay), based on short stories by Maile Meloy
Starring: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, Kristen Stewart, James Le Gros, Jared Harris, Rene Auberjonois, Sara Rodier

In Certain Women, an adaptation of short stories by Maile Meloy, Kelly Reichardt has once again delivered a low-key, downbeat drama, in which we observe the loosely intersecting lives of three women living in a backwater of Montana.

The first vignette opens shortly after a sexual tryst between lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) and a bearded, rugged man named Ryan (James LeGros). Once dressed and arriving at her law offices, Laura is confronted by her affable but persistent client, Fuller (Jared Harris), who is hounding her and doggedly seeking compensation for an office accident which has affected his vision.

He continues to refuse to accept Laura’s assessment that he has no case. Tired of his badgering, she capitulates and agrees to take him to consult a male lawyer in a nearby town, who offers the same counsel. Fuller ostensibly agrees to accept his situation once the male lawyer reiterates Laura’s advice, but continues to emotionally blackmail her into giving him her time and sympathy, until the situation escalates.

In the second segment, Laura’s lover Ryan is revealed as being a married man. His wife is businesswoman Gina (Michelle Williams). The couple have a rather chilly relationship, where Gina is the more proactive, dynamic partner. We join her as she is pensively walking back to the spot where they have been camping, along with their resentful teenage daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier). This is on a plot of land on which Gina would like to build a house using local materials.

On their way back to the city, the family stop to visit Albert (Rene Auberjonois), a family friend, in an effort to persuade him to sell some vintage sandstone that is lying unused in his yard, so that they can incorporate it into the house they are hoping to build.

Gina makes the request and attempts to negotiate an exchange, but is consistently ignored as Albert looks to the uninterested Ryan for confirmation throughout the proceedings. Although Ryan acknowledges Gina as ‘The Boss’ regarding business matters, Albert continues to pay no attention to her or her efforts at polite conversation.

The third section is the most affectingly emotional, thanks to a wonderfully expressive performance by Lily Gladstone, playing a young Native-American woman leading a lonely existence looking after horses on an isolated ranch.

Starved of human interaction, she impulsively joins an evening class on education law in the nearest small town, and is attracted to its instructor, Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart), an overworked law-school graduate, who is despondent to find that she has a four-hour drive, there and back, to fulfil her commitment to the class.

The girl hangs back after the lesson and the teacher asks her if she knows somewhere in the small town where she might eat dinner. So begins a weekly event which breaks the crushing isolation and routine of the unnamed ranch hand, and soon the connection becomes deeply emotionally significant to her. However, one night Elizabeth does not arrive, and a local male replacement explains that she had found the commute too arduous…

For almost two hours, director Reichardt observes each character, following their most mundane everyday actions. The viewing experience proves to be meandering and sometimes downright tedious, but perhaps that is the point. ‘Certain’ women are little noticed, by storytellers, film makers or dramatists. They live unremarkable lives in unremarkable places, and their struggle lies in being noticed and being heard.

In these backwaters, women’s words, opinions and actions are ignored simply because they are women. Here, men still prefer to listen to other men, just because they’re men, even though they may be less competent or even if they offer the same advice, requests or opinions.

Dern and Williams play intelligent and active women who are being ground down by the disregard in which they are held. Under their contained demeanour, they are simmering with resentment and frustration, which poisons their achievements and their relationships.

The conscientious ranch-hand, sensitively played by Lily Gladstone, is being slowly crushed under the weight of her marginalization and lack of human contact.

These are austere, melancholy tales, punctuated by sparse dialogue and underpinned by wintry scenery. In some ways, these stories are probably even more poignant in their original form - written on the page, but in Certain Woman we have a cinematic representation of women at odds with their hidebound rural surroundings.

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2017 All rights reserved.

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