UK Release Date: 3rd March 2017
Runtime: 107 minutes
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writer: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, Kristen Stewart, Jared Harris, James Le Gros, René Auberjonois
Synopsis: Three separate tales of women growing up in Montana are told, with the three stories intersecting slightly as the characters move through their complex, difficult lives.
The work of indie Kelly Reichardt tends towards quiet, measured storytelling rather than bombastic melodrama. Her latest film, Certain Women, is no exception to that rule. The triptych drama, focusing on a variety of women living in Montana, comes into UK cinemas off the back of a string of remarkably strong critical reviews from the festival circuit. The film has been lauded for its performances and for Reichardt’s nuanced take on the three different tales, adapted from a collection of short stories. For me, though, that nuance was absent from this listless, undramatic film.
Laura (Laura Dern) is a lawyer who, in between clandestine lunchtime hook-ups with a married man, is forced to deal with persistent and pushy client Fuller (Jared Harris). When his civil suit against a former employer falls apart, Laura finds herself at the centre of his shocking spiral into depression. Meanwhile, Gina (Michelle Williams) and husband Ryan (James Le Gros) are building their dream home in the woods and negotiate with a lonely, elderly man (René Auberjonois) about purchasing sandstone from his land. Finally, solitary stable worker Jamie (Lily Gladstone) is forced to confront feelings of love when she stumbles into a night class taught by frazzled young lawyer Beth (Kristen Stewart), with whom she forms a bond.
Certain Women contains within its near two-hour running time solid first acts for three reasonably good movies. Unfortunately, that’s all it has. Reichardt seems to mistake aimless meandering for compelling subtlety and the whole film ambles from scene to scene listlessly, seemingly in search of a shread of plot to grab. Reviewers have found meaning in the film’s wordless glances and quiet interludes, but for me, that was completely absent. It’s a resolutely slow film, where even the car crashes are slow and undramatic. There’s a place for patient, largely subtextual, storytelling in cinema, but Certain Women does not employ that strategy well. It’s fine to let the audience fill in the gaps, but this film is considerably more gap than story.
That’s not to say that the film is entirely without merit. The first story, in particular, benefits from an intriguingly tense plot and a tremendous pair of performances by Laura Dern and Jared Harris. Unfortunately, the momentum and tension of that tale is completely unravelled by the boring second story, which is literally about Michelle Williams buying some bits of rock from an old man and then feeling guilty about it. Williams’ performance is fine, but there’s nothing to suggest that there’s any subtextual depth to the simple tale.
Much of the praise for Certain Women has focused on the third story, which features the seemingly unrequited affection between lonely rancher Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart’s frazzled, perma-knackered law teacher. It’s true that there’s an intrigue in the longing glances between the two, but their story is not so much told as merely hinted at by Reichardt’s simplistic script. The performances are very strong and it’s in this segment that Christopher Blauvelt’s gorgeous lensing is allowed to shine, but it’s impossible to shake the belief that there’s only half a movie here.
This is a film that seems to take an incredibly long time to achieve very little. Reichardt is seemingly keen to tell the stories of ordinary people, but she forgets that an audience needs at least a few crumbs in order to piece together the rest of the story. Subtlety is one thing, but leaving viewers frustrated and unfulfilled is something entirely different.
Pop or Poop?
Kelly Reichardt may have delighted film critics with Certain Women, but this is a befuddling film for everybody else. It benefits from strong performances and handsome lensing, but it’s severely lacking in the plot department. There’s room for slow-burn storytelling and ambiguity in cinema, but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of substance here.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
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