The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
“Sir, what if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens, where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the real world.” So goes the famous scene in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, to which Brian Cox’s Robert McKee verbally shakes him down, offering example after example of major life events that happen every day, before concluding that, “If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life!” Here’s the thing: Kaufman isn’t exactly wrong. On any given day, most people would be hard-pressed to find anything significant to share, let alone turn into a story. But, here’s the other thing: It’s there. It’s the little things. They’re in the pregnant pauses. The silent walks to and from work. Those brief seconds of terror when reality truly bites. That’s where a patient filmmaker like Kelly Reichardt shines, and her latest film, Certain Women, is further evidence.
Based on Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It: Stories, the film oscillates between the lives of four women living in or around the small town of Livingston, Wyoming. Laura Dern plays a struggling lawyer named Laura Wells, whose ailing client (Jared Harris) causes all sorts of problems for her, including a minor hostage situation. Michelle Williams jogs around as Gina Lewis, a determined mother and wife looking to build an authentic home for her family. And Kristen Stewart commutes between Livingston and Belfry as up-and-coming lawyer Beth Travis, whose evening lessons in school law draw interest from a nearby rancher named Jamie (Lily Gladstone). For close to two hours, Reichardt rolls the film and observes each character, following their everyday actions, whether it’s grabbing Chinese food at a local mall or smoking in silence on a quiet trail or heating up a frozen hamburger at a roadside pit stop. It’s a little meandering, even trying at times, but that’s the gist.
These are quiet and moody stories, which means the dialogue’s spare and the scenery is vivid. Out of the four principals, Dern’s story is by far the liveliest, from an early morning affair to a late-night hostage negotiation, and she lights up the screen. Coming off last year’s Oscar nomination for her exceptional performance in Wild, the veteran star continues to impress with ease, turning pained expressions and tired exasperations into 30 pages of character design. There’s a weight to her role that trumps the rest of the cast, namely because she’s the most interesting of the four. In fact, when she resurfaces later in the film, it’s something of a revelation — she’s that good. Similarly, Stewart keeps the momentum going following last year’s head-turning work in Clouds of Sils Maria as she delivers another nuanced performance as Travis. Her few reactions say so much — something as small as the way she hunches over a grilled cheese sandwich even — and further elaborate her inherent struggles. Then there’s Gladstone, who’s straddled with a hefty chunk of the film’s runtime and yet carries out the lonely role with aplomb.
Sadly, it’s Williams who doesn’t get enough to chew on. Her story as Lewis is by far the strangest, though: She’s living outdoors in a tent while she works with her husband (an admirable James LeGros) on securing a pile of historic sandstone from an old hermit (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s René Auberjonois). The whole premise is an out-there parallel for her broken family — and one that tows the line between surreal and melancholy with dizzying effect — but it’s hardly a match for Wells’ dilemmas or the curious bond between Travis and Jamie. That’s not to say those are without its own problems, either. Whereas we could have used a little more time with Wells, Reichardt challenges her audience by spending way too much time with Jamie, following the young woman around as she tends to her farm all alone. To her credit, she captures both the beauty and mundanity of farm life, which explains Jamie’s introverted charms, but the story plods along at the drowsy speed of her horse. Needless to say, Reichardt could have trimmed a few shots in the editing room, one reason why another set of eyes is key.
Still, when a film looks this gorgeous, it’s understandable why Reichardt left so much in. Certain Women marks her third collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, following 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff and 2013’s Night Moves, and it’s an optimal marriage. So much of the film’s rugged naturalism stems from his ability to suck all the natural light into each shot, specifically the nighttime shooting, when the foreground’s glazed in golds and reds and whites. There’s also a comfortability to his work that affords Reichardt the extra two or three seconds per shot, which in turn helps her construct a larger world — and boy does Reichardt do just that with Certain Women. Meloy’s tranquil collection of American snapshots comes to life with gripping realism and brutal emotion. It’s an ode to this country’s oft-forgotten middle, where the struggle is, indeed, very real. As such, Certain Women is not always thrilling, but it’s certainly faithful.