Certain Women review – quietly mysterious tale of lives on the edge | Peter Bradshaw's film of the week

Michelle Williams, Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart are utterly engaging in Kelly Reichardt’s heartfelt study of three women in small-town Montana

Delicacy, intelligence, compassion and control are what writer-director Kelly Reichardt brings to her muted but utterly involving new film, about separate women’s lives in the prairie towns of southern Montana in the United States. It features Laura Dern as provincial lawyer Laura, Michelle Williams as discontented wife and mother Gina, and Kristen Stewart as law student and teacher Elizabeth.

Everything is photographed in a distinctively subdued indie-stonewash colour palette, the soundtrack and spoken dialogue are murmuringly quiet, and it’s a film that never forces its emotional effects on us. One of the opening scenes actually contains an armed hostage standoff with a crazy guy, but it’s directed so calmly it feels as if we’re watching a mild disagreement at a church coffee morning. Certain Women is a title with a tentative, open-ended quality. A random sample selection? That’s coolly at odds with the obvious fact that Reichardt is very deliberate – very certain – about what and who she wants to show on screen, and how. The “why” is up to us.

It’s a subtly contrived study of three different lives (actually, is it four?) based on short stories by Montana author Maile Meloy, from her 2009 collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. The women’s existences don’t exactly intersect, neither precisely do they overlap, nor can they be accurately said to interrelate. There is an unstressed asymmetry or structural imbalance in the way they are presented. Two of the three are lawyers; two of the three have unsatisfactory men in their lives. The first woman has a secret connection with the second, which colours everything we see in that second woman’s life with a hidden bad faith. But there is no comparable link between the second and the third, and only a coincidental link between the third and the first. Yet there is some patterning: three stories, presented sequentially, then three codas.

This is no twisty little daisy chain, as in Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde, and it is unlike, say, Stephen Daldry’s formally triple-deckered generational drama The Hours, based on the Michael Cunningham novel. It is different from Altman’s sprawling Short Cuts, based on the Raymond Carver stories – closer, perhaps, to Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, based on three stories by Alice Munro. Actually, each of these stories reminded me of a miniaturised version of something like Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, filmed by Ang Lee. But maybe it is Williams’s presence that has created this comparison, like a mirage.

Dern’s lawyer is having a hotel-room affair with a married guy; in her work, she is having to represent a building-site carpenter, played by Jared Harris, in a personal injury case, which he has no chance of winning, due to having already rashly accepted a small payoff in writing. But he won’t take her word for this – he needs to hear it from a male lawyer. Gina’s husband, played by James Le Gros, is of no help in raising their tricky teenage daughter, and she is depressed in ways she can’t articulate by their plan to persuade an elderly neighbour to give them a pile of unused sandstone from his yard for their new house: an acquisition that fails to give any sense of nesting and domestic achievement.

Laura, played by Laura Dern, is a lawyer having a hotel-room affair with a married guy.
Laura, played by Laura Dern, is a lawyer having a hotel-room affair with a married guy. Photograph: Allstar/Ifc Films

Meanwhile, Stewart’s Elizabeth is teaching a class on education law and a lonely ranch-hand (Lily Gladstone) comes along on a whim, and falls in love with the teacher. Her presence, more poignant and more potent than Stewart’s, is another asymmetrical factor.

The law is a key theme. Laura’s client settled too early, and for too little. Maybe Laura and Gina might suspect the same about themselves for various reasons. Another trope is the scattered, fractured community. Gina really wants to use her neighbour’s sandstone for her house because this is an authentic, indigenous material. And yet she is deeply disconcerted by her failure to make a real connection with this elderly man, by a suspicion that by not sufficiently pressing him to take a payment for the stone she and her husband have exploited his borderline-dementia state. And Elizabeth has to drive four hours both ways for her teaching job, and couldn’t cultivate a connection with her pupil if she wanted.

Kristen Stewart plays Elizabeth, a law student and teacher.
Kristen Stewart as Elizabeth, a law student and teacher. Photograph: Allstar/Ifc Films

Certain Women has a decentred, short-story aesthetic. It is a movie that declines to detonate the traditional climactic revelation or catharsis that pulls everything together, and some might find it frustrating. I found it entirely absorbing. You must take time to immerse yourself in its quiet mystery.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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