“Certain Women” Captures Female Experiences in Small Town Montana

Directed by Kelly Reichardt and released this October, “Certain Women” pensively explores certain distinctively female experiences by presenting snippets of the lives of three women (played by Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stuart) living in the same, small town of Livingston, Montana. The film is set in the cloudy, washed-out, yellow-grey atmosphere of wintertime in Livingston, and its mostly silent score and slow pace makes it a largely visual, meditative film. Reichardt continuously surveys the beautiful landscape of rural Montana and allows the women’s stories to appear small but significant in the larger context of the town and the natural world. At once, the film seems empty, hopeless and also filled with meaning, and these blurry, contradictory feelings make watching it somewhat exasperating. Its unhurried, quiet nature added to this feeling and gave the movie a peculiar, reflective affect. I often found myself either over-analyzing every aspect of each scene or losing myself completely in my own, unrelated thoughts and then forcibly relocating myself in the film’s narrative. Watching “Certain Women” was a strange, somewhat unpleasant experience, but it was also unlike any other I’ve had with a film. Though often excessively artsy/campy, the film was undeniably captivating, and the acting was remarkable and effectual. It felt like Reichardt was asking me to focus and watch in an entirely new and different way — to catch my mind wandering and to appreciate the fleeting, slow, beautiful and often frustrating, unfair, incommunicable moments that make up so many women’s lives.

The film moves from one drawn-out glimpse into the life of one woman, to a similar glimpse into the life of the next, and Reichardt does not return to any of the women’s narratives after their designated glimpses. I kept wondering when the women’s lives and stories would connect, but they never did — at least not directly, and the only thing they shared was Livingston. However, there were a few, piecemeal moments of overlap. For example, one woman was having an affair with another woman’s husband — but this was shown briefly in one scene, and the connection remained wholly undeveloped. Additionally, one woman mistakenly entered the building where another woman worked — one walked up the stairs to her office, while the other asked questions at the front desk. The unique, almost nonexistent overlap between the characters added to the film’s steady slowness, and it created a strange sense of waiting for something to happen that never would. In a way, this made the film more realistic — the women’s stories did not sum up to a contrived, cinematic plotline, rather they were momentary, somewhat unexciting and indirectly linked. The distance between the three lives felt vast yet easily traversable, and this paradox shed light on the distinct details of every woman’s life, the undeniable relatedness of human and female experience, and the many, perhaps similar stories left untold.

The film opens with an alternative, quiet bedroom scene in which Laura Dern and her partner (who we later discover to be Michelle Williams’ husband) are getting up and getting dressed. One particular shot sticks out in my mind in which Dern gently, silently kicks her partner with a socked foot and, in the next shot, is shown as a reflected image in a mirror, still in bed, while her partner, still getting dressed, has his back to the camera. These shots added to the often overly artsy/campy vibe of the film, but they also spoke to the strangeness and difficulties of relation and communication — especially between men and women. As Dern’s designated glimpse continues, we learn that she is a capable lawyer, but her problematic client won’t listen to what she has to say until he hears the same thing from a male lawyer. This client, played by Jared Harris, comically, painfully confides in Dern about his all-consuming troubles — never taking into consideration her feelings and professionalism. Later, he has a violent, mental breakdown in which he traps a policeman in a building, and Dern — not one of the male policemen — is directed to talk him down and free the prisoner. This sequence was perhaps the most blatant representation of sexism in the film, but it also foreshadowed a later scene in which an older man meeting with Michelle Williams and her husband ignores almost everything Williams has to say. The film had an uncanny ability to tap into and portray the exhaustion felt by women in everyday, ordinary interactions overlaid by sexism and their small, subsequent tactics of resistance — whether it was secret cigarette breaks (Williams), or enduring solitude (Gladstone).

Perhaps the most moving sequence was the last, which was shared by Kristen Stuart and Lily Gladstone, that encompasses their unlikely relationship. Gladstone meets Stuart, who is working by accident as a night-school teacher with a four-hour commute, after entering her classroom on a whim. The two spend time together going to a nearby diner after Stuart’s class, and this breaks up Gladstone’s largely isolated, monotonous routine taking care of horses. Their connection on-screen feels tangible, and Gladstone’s harmless, tender fascination with Stuart drew me deeply into the film’s narrative and its breathtaking landscape. Through this sequence, Reichardt touches on the beauty and the troubles of female relationships, and, as with the rest of the film, she does so effectively and cinematically, without having to say too much.