There are few American filmmakers who bring as much texture and rusticity to their frames like Kelly Reichardt. Equally, there are even fewer who are able to produce such heightened decibels with palpable silence. Certain Women is a work of exquisite tone; both visually and audibly. The ethereal howl of nature and the frosty breath of the sleepy Montana people creates a lyrical and potent arrangement of emotional shades. And when the picture’s single usage of narrative score consumes, you’ll finally realise the overwhelming weight of what you are witnessing.
Reichardt’s screenplay – adapted from Montana-based author Maile Meloy – tells a melodic triptych of female character studies; all disparate in scenario and progression, yet somehow feeling entirely at one. Laura Dern’s morally stressed lawyer (also named Laura) arrives on-screen postcoital with a married man; cocooned in bed linen; scantily clad. She has been trying to assist construction labourer Fuller (Jared Harris) for some eight months, who is pursuing a unattainable injury claim and fails to listen or respect Laura’s legal counsel because of her sex. It isn’t long before he favours a more extreme and ambiguous course of action to claim what’s “rightfully his”.
From here we are airdropped with striking contrast. The scene prior, stuffy and uncompromising; the next, sprawlingly vacant. Michelle Williams’ Gina – a nest-building material figure – absorbs the ambience of her environment as she jogs alongside the icy lakes, amidst the wiry trees. She is attempting with the aid of her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) and the disdain of teenage daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier) to build a new home; one complete with authentic bricks and mortar. She and Ryan visit an estranged elderly and psychologically-distant family friend with the aim of purchasing an array of seemingly unwanted native materials.
Reichardt’s subdued and restrained direction keeps the audience lingering in her imagery. Every static and open shot of densely weathered land maintains a haunting atmosphere; in the reserved stillness of her lens lies inescapable foreboding. The sporadic voices of her film amplify such isolation, and the creative choice to keep orchestral music almost entirely absent only renders the feeling further. By the time we enter the third – and most nakedly profound – narrative strand, such a thick undercurrent of nuance commands, and the results are quietly astonishing. A bittersweet, palatable tale of connection arrives in the form of Jamie (newcomer Lily Gladstone), a lonely horse rancher who floats through spaces as silently as shadow. Her muted existence and clockwork routines somehow venture down an unforeseen path as she aimlessly stumbles into an educational law course at a local adult education centre.
Here she develops an intensely imitate fixation for young and travel-strained tutor Beth (Kristen Stewart); a recent graduate forced to undertake the classes which are stationed some four-hour commute from her Livingstone residency. The two develop tenderly ambiguous rapport over late-night diner meals. Jamie has zero reason whatsoever to attend Beth’s classes – she is after all, not an educator – but the roots of their platonic romance grow deeper with each returning visit.
Certain Women‘s unparalleled excellence radiates from understatement. Whilst Reichardt has worked with high-calibre performers before (this serves as her third pairing with Williams after Wendy and Lucy, and Meek’s Cutoff), this is by far her most illustrious arrangement of actors, yet they remain as quaint yet deeply felt as her composition and editing. Collectively the entire cast offer sublime work, but the emotional clout of Jamie and Beth’s journey serves as the crowning jewel. Stewart continues to showcase herself as the most exciting talent of her generation; a cavalcade of aching humanity, profoundly told through dexterous physicality, whilst Gladstone will make spectators yearn with her ghostly film of longing. She is a tremendous find, and to provide such urgent work alongside some of Hollywood’s leading ladies is a true testament.
After the thrilling genre highs of Night Moves, Reichardt has returned to more traditionalist territories, producing complex and organic poetry with Certain Women. It is contemplative and introspective, thoughtful and modest, and unquestionably one of the most profoundly human films of the year.
Certain Women is out now in select UK cinemas. Click here for our exclusive interview with director Kelly Reichardt.