Certain Women boasts one of the year’s most delicate and romantic sequences: rancher Jamie, mesmerized by Beth’s ill-prepared and embarrassing lectures on education law to hostile night school attendees, dumps her car and rides a horse to class; Jamie invites Beth to join her on the saddle as they trot to their twice weekly debriefing at a diner. The pair hold on tight as the horse cuts through the cool rural Montana air. Nothing is said. Nothing need be said.
Based on Maile Meloy’s short stories about people a rung or two up the economic ladder from the hardscrabble lives in Richard Ford’s Rock Springs, Certain Women weaves three tentatively connected narratives about women at work and seething with suppressed frustrations. The first begins in a bedroom in Livingston where lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) dresses after a night with an unnamed man played by a sadly aged and potbellied James Le Gros; at the office she has to deal again with Fuller (Jared Harris), unemployed since an on-the-job accident but for which he signed away any legal liability. Although Laura has made this clear, he insists on a second opinion – from a man, of course. Driving back from the unsuccessful and time-consuming visit, Fuller threatens to shoot former colleagues, which is not the sort of announcement Laura needs to hear. But he wasn’t fooling: in the middle of the night Laura is awakened by cops who want her to persuade Fuller to release the security guard he’s holding hostage at his former job. The tone of this segment takes its cue from Dern’s quiet exasperation; everyone may have his or her reasons, but she has to clean their messes. The second section follows Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams), determined to build a house of sandstone over the passive aggressive objections of her husband, whom the audience realizes is cheatin’ James Le Gros. Elderly and slow Albert (Robert Altman stalwart René Auberjonois) has a pile in front of his home; Gina is determined to get it.
Viewed as part of a triptych of suppressed rage, this weak second section depends on context for its effect. But Certain Women‘s gem is the third. Kristen Stewart, who has of late triumphed in the creation of bone-weary women, plays the lawyer and night school teacher, driving four hours every other weekday afternoon from Livingston to a dot of a town for terrible money. Lily Grandstone is the rancher. For a couple of minutes her motives are unclear: is she really interested in hearing about Supreme Court jurisprudence on the rights of high schoolers? But her broad, radiant smile gives her away. Besides, what is she giving away? She has a crush on Beth. Nothing is said. Nothing need be said.
A filmmaker comfortable with silences and lacuna, Kelly Reichardt has made her gentlest film to date. “You wanna get coffee so we can strategize?” Fuller says to Laura as if he’d heard of the verb in a self-help book. During one of their coffee klatches Beth wonders if she isn’t better off selling shoes like every other woman in her family. Thanks to Christopher Blauvelt’s 16 mm camera, Certain Women captures the prickly white heat of a sunny day in winter; it also ponders the gradations of longing on a young woman’s face. Regard the title as an honorific: if these women look generic, it’s because they’re all of us
Certain Women screened as part of Miami Film Festival’s GEMS series.