“She’s my lawyer. I’ve got reason to kill her.”
I didn’t love Wendy and Lucy, the only Kelly Reichardt film I had thus far seen. The slow pacing and stripped-bare plot allowed for Michelle Williams to deliver a magnificent performance, but I found myself undeniably bored by the steady stream of troubles chipping away at her resolve. This reaction dissuaded me from Reichardt’s other features, but the almost universal critical praise—yet again—for her latest Certain Women dragged me back into her orbit to see if it would strike a louder chord. To my surprise it did. This triptych based on the short stories of Maile Meloy allows each simple yet emotionally heavy plot to intrigue in its quietness without frustration. They’re each the perfect length separately and together a wonderful portrait on an important theme.
That theme aptly concerns women: their struggle to be respected on an equal playing field as men and the ability to want rather than merely accept. Reichardt and Meloy use stereotypical situations and an almost universal existential crisis of social invisibility to ensure viewers cannot gloss over this reality. They turn the tables by not simply ignoring the travesties so many take for granted, but forcing us to sympathize and understand what’s happening beneath the surface instead. For lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern), setting up an appointment with a male colleague to supply her client Fuller (Jared Harris) a second opinion should be rudimentary. By finally acknowledging his fate despite being told what Wells has been saying for months, the double standard at play becomes unavoidable.
Gender roles become caricatured for Gina Lewis (Williams) so not even the dumbest chauvinist watching can mistake the message. She’s a mother doing her best to be seen by family let alone the world blatantly refusing to look past her lack of a Y-chromosome. She’s the breadwinner and her husband’s boss and yet that strength and authority push her to the fringes as “difficult”. Her daughter (Sara Rodier‘s Guthrie) rebels, her spouse (James Le Gros‘ Ryan) makes it appear as though “being nice” is a gift so she can feel good rather than a way to assuage the guilt he should possess but doesn’t, and the older gentleman (Rene Auberjonois) for whom she hopes to engage in commerce literally acts as though she isn’t even in the room.
The third short focuses on Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a ranch-hand who stumbles upon a night class on school law taught by “city girl” Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart). The city is Livingston, Montana (where Laura and Gina also reside) and about a four-hour drive from the rural area where Jamie lives. What would normally be an aside dealing with a burgeoning friendship, this tale is made ambiguous by allowing Jamie to take on a usually masculine role of flirtation and chivalry. Viewers wouldn’t think twice about a handsome cowboy attending a class he doesn’t need to take the teacher out for food afterwards. But making that cowboy a woman lends a thicker air of confusion. Should Beth get the hint? Should she know she’s possibly leading Jamie on?
We suddenly realize that titling Reichardt’s film Certain Women is yet one more mode of commentary because these aren’t women as much as complex human beings seeking definition. If you were to make it with men in the three leading roles there would be no reason to watch. Wells would tell “his” client his options and that would be that. There would be no need for a second opinion, no thinly veiled flirtations while ignoring expert advice, and no dismissiveness on behalf of Police Chief Rowles (John Getz) if an escalated situation arises (as it does here). Gina would be patronizingly doted upon by “his” wife and the man “he” visits for a business transaction would actually look “him” in the eyes. And Jamie would make Beth swoon.
What these women have in common is their refusal to buckle under the pressure of cultural clichés. Laura worked tirelessly to get where she is and doesn’t have to defend herself to anyone, least of all a disrespectful client who jokes about her tardiness in arriving at the office with her name on the door. Gina’s made a business for which she employs men and supplies a living wage. If she needs something done she will do it herself without making any apologies because she shouldn’t have to apologize for being successful or tough. And Jamie is a down-to-earth romantic who understands what it’s like to excel at a “man’s job”. She doesn’t need to escape “destiny” or be demeaned (like Beth by her bosses) and she won’t.
These are women paving a pathway through Northwest America and doing what’s necessary to do right by themselves. They are achieving happiness by fighting a world trying to tell them they are lesser. What we get in the process are human performances built on the backs of ambition, empathy, and courage. And the order they are presented is crucial to their resonance too. Wells’ tale is the most over-the-top as far as men treating her with an asterisk and Lewis is the most frustrating experience in how those surrounding her do the same despite acknowledging how much she does for them to earn a level of superiority. But it’s ultimately Jamie’s story that hits hardest because it’s less about what’s said than what’s felt. She’s in full control.
It’s therefore easy to say Stewart’s Beth is the lead here despite the camera following Gladstone from start to finish. Beth is the object, though, even if she’s the one visibly fighting uphill as a woman trying to be more than her sister and mother. Whereas Laura and Gina are underappreciated for that exact thing, Beth’s struggle and success only make her more appealing to Jamie. Finally someone is willing to listen and care, but she’s blindly dismissed too because she’s a woman and we assume Beth isn’t interested in the same way. It’s heartwarming to see how Jamie changes her routine and does the little things to give this stranger a sense of love, belonging, and purpose, though. And it’s devastating watching those actions taken for granted.
Rating: R | Runtime: 107 minutes | Release Date: October 14th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: IFC Films
Director(s): Kelly Reichardt
Writer(s): Kelly Reichardt / Maile Meloy (short stories)