Certain Women, American director Kelly Reichardt’s sixth film, begins with a shot that serves as a statement of intent: a rusting old train slowly drags itself across the Montana landscape, framed by snowy mountain peaks; stoic in its solitude, it chuffs and puffs along the track, determined to reach its destination, piercing the early morning air with sharp whistles, announcing its presence. It’s a fitting representation of Reichardt’s films, which centre around the normal day-to-day lives of average Americans, portraying their struggles, their defeats, and their small triumphs with a relentless internal energy and endless empathy.
Certain Woman, based off a number of short stories by Maile Meloy, acts as an exploration of loneliness and isolation. The women at its centre are tangentially related to each other, but never really meet; they are trapped within their own worlds. Laura Dern is a lawyer dealing with a difficult client, who refuses to listen to her advice about a personal injury claim. Dern plays her character with great depth, each subtle movement revealing the frustrations of not being heard on account of her gender. “It’d be so lovely to think that if I were a man and I could explain a law people would listen and say ‘Okay.’,” Laura reports to a friend, “Oh, that would be so restful.”
Like Laura, Gina (Michelle Williams – in her third outing with Reichardt) is used to not being listened to; she’s trying to build a house with her husband, but is undermined by her daughter, and ignored by the elderly man she’s trying to get sandstone from. From the first scene we see with Gina – she’s dressed from head to toe in running gear, lighting up a cigarette – we know that she’s a bundle of contradictions, contorting herself to the different roles society gets us to play. Williams does a great job portraying the impossible dilemma she finds herself in: one that asks her to act friendly, but then chastises her for acting at all.
In the most haunting segment of the film, Kristen Stewart plays Beth, a trainee lawyer who has agreed to teach class law in the middle of nowhere after panicking that she wouldn’t be employed following graduation. Her class is attended by lonely ranch-hand Jamie (Lily Gladstone), who accompanies her to a diner after every class, before Beth makes the 4-hour drive back to Livingston; two individuals, united in their loneliness, but separated from each other by a distance too great to traverse, Beth and Jamie circle around each other, trying but failing to speak across the gaps.
The separate tales in Certain Women weave around one another, creating a narrative structure that appears loose, but belies an internal rigor and structure. Reichardt’s gift with dialogue shines through; the lines spoken by the characters, unlike in many films, seem completely naturalistic, with Reichardt expertly capturing the nuances and rhythms present in the conversation.
Like the progenitors of the mumblecore movement, Reichardt focuses on dialogue over visuals; but unlike Andrew Bujalski and Lynn Shelton, Reichardt’s work is never anything less than completely focused on its subject matter, which is handled with delicacy and grace. The crushing weight of isolation is borne with a lightness of touch; her characters have a sense of tragedy surrounding them, but they themselves are never viewed as tragic – they are the heroes of their own stories.
To me, the closest comparison to Reichardt’s work is not to be found in other films, but rather in the work of Edward Hopper, that American painter who masterfully conveyed the experience of being isolated amongst others. Certain Women is like Hopper’s canvases, acting as a postcard from the edge of solitude. Both Reichardt and Hopper act, in the words of Olivia Laing, ‘as if loneliness was something worth looking at’ – and this is an act of highlighting, of thrusting forward into the spotlight, that takes supreme artistic courage.
Certain Women is allowed to unfold at its own steady pace – Reichardt never attempts to rush forward the action, but instead lets the narrative reveal itself organically. She is not interested in large dramas, or epic climaxes, but lets her camera linger on the minutiae of everyday life; what could be more authentic than a lived reality? Reichardt shows us that everyone has their own story, and everyone is worth listening to. Certain Women is affirming in the truest sense of the word – by exalting and elevating the individual human experience, Reichardt has created a film with empathy, grace, and deep humanity.