Francisco Fontes reviews Certain Women, by writer and director Kelly Reichardt, at the New York Film Festival. It opens today (10/14/16).
From her very first film, Kelly Reichardt has focused on the details of life that are not always explored. For her, the mundane is as important as the unusual things in life, and the smallest gesture, the smallest detail, become more memorable than the big events. And she is correct. In life, for as much as we remember our great accomplishments and adventures, the smallest details seem to take a stronger hold of one’s memories. They last forever, with no apparent reason. It is such memories that make us who we are, for those are the ones that make us realize that we are human, and that our existence matters.
Certain Women starts with such a beautiful shot that it looks like a Hollywood golden era matte painting backdrop. It immediately sets two important factors of what we are about to watch: the setting, Montana – desolate like the characters here – and the overall look and color of the movie. Shot in glorious 16mm, every frame of this film is a thing of beauty. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (whose first feature credit is Reichardt’s own stunner Meeks’s Cutoff) captures glorious moment in the lives of the women we follow, even if the same moments are not beautiful in these characters perceptions.
The movie is divided in three stories, and while they can be connected in many forms, they are isolated tales of disconnected women who are put in unfair positions by those around them. For no matter if they are the brains behind an operation, or the source of income in a family, they are never recognized for their hard work, and that exhausts them. “She can’t help making me the bad guy” one of them says about her own daughter. “I wish I could be a man so that people would listen to me” another says in relation to her work. Lack of support leads to loneliness, and every character in this movies lack the support they should have.
Analyzing the lives of these characters in such delicate detail can only work the way it should if a good actor is behind them. And this film has one of the best ensembles one could hope for. Every single performance had a strong effect on me, and much of the film’s success lies on their shoulder. Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart are all on their prime here, working with very little to give life to these strong, misunderstood women. But it is Lily Gladstone who steals the scene in her shattering portrayal of a rancher who is looking for friends at the wrong places. It is a work of such minute beauty that it manages to somewhat overshadow the more experienced actresses around her.
Reichardt, who also edits the film, keeps with her traditional pacing and gives us another master work. As a director, she is a teacher, always showing me ways of how to tell a story that relies on very little, how to linger on something for the right amount of time, and how to give importance to something that would be overlooked by anyone else. Her movies are gifts to those who appreciate exploring new territories, and I couldn’t wish for a better packaged gift than Certain Women.