After a sold-out premiere screening at the Sundance Film Festival garnered a sizeable amount of positive acclaim, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women has been on my radar for most of the year. I sat down to view the film last weekend fully expecting an engrossing, emotional and well-acted portrait of the sort of female characters that are rarely front and center in mainstream offerings, but while the performances are undeniably strong, that’s about the only positive thing I have to say.
Certain Women is a collection of three shorter narratives (although that word doesn’t feel remotely accurate in this situation), featuring three different small-town women whose lives intersect (barely) in the most mundane and insignificant ways you might be able to imagine. The first segment follows a lawyer (Laura Dern) whose hapless client (Jared Harris) is trying to negotiate a better payout from a personal injury suit, while the second features a humorless wife (Michelle Williams) bartering with an elderly farmer over the sale of a pile of rocks. Trust me, it’s every bit as exciting as it sounds.
The third vignette is easily the film’s best, as a lonely rancher (newcomer Lily Gladstone) finds herself drawn to a recent law school graduate (Kristen Stewart) teaching a night class about education law. Every night, the two meet at a local diner for coffee and conversation – although Gladstone’s character partakes in precious little of either, preferring to stare nervously across the table at the object of her affection. It’s clear that she’s smitten, and even more clear that Stewart’s frazzled educator isn’t on the same wavelength, which we know can only lead to misery.
In fact, misery seems to be the recurring theme in Certain Women. No one in this film seems to be happy about anything, and the bleak Midwestern setting and muted color palette only add to its air of melancholy. Every character we meet is either angry or sad (or both), and Reichardt’s predilection for long takes with no dialogue leaves the audience with nothing to do but wallow in the despondency of her subjects. The film’s opening – a four-minute static shot of a train rolling slowly across the plains and into town – is one of the most exciting moments, and it’s pretty much all downhill from there.
I’ve enjoyed some of Reichart’s other work – most notably 2013’s Night Moves – but found her latest effort to be excruciating and tedious. At times, it seems that she’s trying to comment on the way our patriarchal society often regards women as inferior beings – such as the scene where the aforementioned elderly farmer repeatedly ignores Williams’ attempts to broker a deal in favor of making unrelated small talk with her husband – but none of these themes are actually explored, which could have made for a far more interesting experience, and one that might not have felt like a chore to sit through. I’ve always found the best films to be the ones that evoke the strongest emotions, but Certain Women exists at the other end of the spectrum, unable to inspire anything beyond contempt, disdain and disinterest.