Director Kelly Reichardt is touted in the movie trailer for Certain Women as “cinema’s foremost poet of the American Northwest”, which, to this Northwest girl, is kind of an awesome title to earn. I’ve heard of her other acclaimed films like Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, but this is the first of her films that I’ve seen. After seeing Certain Women, I can see why she is called a poet. Poetry can be a tough nut to crack, but with patience, it can be rewarding.
In the first of three Montana-based stories (adapted from writer Maile Meloy), Laura Dern (whose face I love to watch) plays a lawyer dealing with a client (Jared Harris) who only finally believes his injury case is a dead end when given a second opinion by a male lawyer. Dern’s character ends up being thrust in the role of nurturer (to his hurt feelings), caretaker (when he falls apart), and even hostage (when he decides to hold a building security guard at gunpoint). You ask, why is it always the woman’s role to accommodate a broken man, even when he is clearly in the wrong? From Laura Dern’s exasperated expression, you know she wonders the same thing.
The second is the most cryptic, partially because of Michelle Williams. To me, she has always been an actress where I’m not sure if she is veiling a secret depth, or else it’s just that I can’t read her single expression. She and her husband (James LeGros) are building a rural dream house and go to visit and convince a lonely old man to sell them his old pile of sandstone, except the man only addresses the husband while she does all the negotiating. This story is so subtle that it almost feels like nothing much happens, and I’m not sure much really does.
But stick around for the third, and by far best story. This perfect short story lifts you with hope then quietly breaks your heart. A young woman who works as a lone ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) wanders into a night class at a local community college out of curiosity. The young instructor (Kristen Stewart) stumbles in, frazzled from a horrific four-hour commute, and starts by awkwardly admitting that the subject of school law is not her expertise. The smattering of students, who are all teachers, really just want to use the class as a bitch session. But rancher is smitten. Lily Gladstone has a sweet face which slowly opens in hope when she sees the teacher at each session, and you know that the crush can go one way or another. You don’t have a heart if it doesn’t feel squeezed at their final scene together. It is really lovely and perfect and sad.
It must be noted that Montana itself is one of the stars of this beautifully shot, quiet film. From the mountains in the backdrop, to the rustic wintry streets of the towns, to the quiet crunch of snow under horses’ hooves when they are let out of the barn, it is a lovely, evocative ode to the Big Sky Country.