‘Certain Women’, adapted by director Kelly Reichardt from three short stories by Maile Melloy, follows the lives of four women in small town Montana. On the surface, each woman appears to be successful in her own right, but in reality the four are united in a sort of despair and loneliness perfectly exemplified by Montana’s big skies.
Opening with Laura, played by Laura Dern, a lawyer in Livingston, Montana, we find she is having an affair with Ryan, who just happens to be married to Gina (Michelle Williams) one of the other women. Laura should be happy, but she’s not. When Ryan breaks it off with her, it’s just the latest in a long string of disappointments, not least of which is her dissatisfaction with her career. She has been dealing with Fuller, a disgruntled client with a workplace-related disability, for eight months. Fuller refuses to believe anything Laura says, purely because she is a woman. Fuller believes a second opinion – because it’s been given by a man – but that doesn’t stop him wanting to shoot up his former employers. Laura is called upon to intercede and successfully talks Fuller down.
Ryan’s wife, Gina, is a strong woman who has taken charge of building their new home. They approach an elderly man they know, Albert, to sell them a pile of sandstone he has on his property. He agrees, but is essentially unwilling, as the sandstone is all that remains of the old schoolhouse, and holds strong memories for him. The interplay between Ryan, Gina, and Albert, and alternatively between the couple and their teenage daughter, is strong and evocative: we feel deep sadness for Albert, as he doesn’t want to part with this last reminder of the past; we also feel for Gina, whose relationship with both her husband (who we remember has been having an affair) and her daughter Guthrie, is quite stiff and difficult.
The third story, set in Belfry, a town four hours’ drive from the comparative metropolis of Livingston, focuses on Jamie, played magnificently by Lily Gladstone, a rancher who lives a very lonely and repetitive life looking after horses. A bright spark enters Jamie’s life in the form of Elizabeth (Beth) Travis, played by Kristen Stewart, who is teaching a class on school law. Jamie had followed a line of cars to see where they were going. She goes into the class and is fascinated by Beth. The pair eat together after class, before Beth has to make the gruelling four hour return journey to Livingston. This goes on twice a week for several weeks, until Jamie finds out that Beth has quit the class, as it was taking too much of a toll on her real job as a lawyer. Jamie sets off in her truck and drives to Livingston find her – chancing upon Laura along the way, and discovering, as we do, that there’s more than one law firm in Livingston. Jamie eventually meets up with Beth, and tells her that she’s come to see her, because if she didn’t, she’d never see her again. The pair part unemotionally, and each returns to their humdrum lives.
The film is quietly contemplative. The cinematography is stunning and conveys a vastness that is as big as Montana itself. In a lot of ways the hugeness of the scenery is a metaphor of the despair and loneliness felt by the women in the film. There’s a feeling of dissatisfaction at the film’s conclusion – this is no fairy tale, there’s no happy ending. Laura is still under-appreciated as a female lawyer; Gina’s relationship with her family is still strained; Beth still doesn’t like her job; and Jamie is still lonely, doing the same job over and over and over again every single day.
Kelly Reichardt, like Maile Melloy, is a Montana native, and it’s her understanding of the Big Sky state that comes across in her directing and screenplay. Interestingly, she added to this intensity by directing through glass – by doing so she emphasised an “apartness” from the subjects. ‘Certain Women’ is a quiet, and contemplative film, that will leave you wanting. Not just wanting more from the film, but maybe wanting to go out to Montana and experience the big sky for yourself.
‘Certain Women’ is in UK cinemas from March 3. See Park Cinemas for details of cinemas and screening times.