Certain Women is made up of three stories involving four women in and around Livingston, Montana. Like Reichardt’s 2010 western, Meek’s Cutoff, at first glance little happens and nothing seems resolved. Yet, also like the previous film, the understated performances and spare dialogue convey huge amounts — of heartbreak, anger, loneliness and yearning.
Laura (Laura Dern) is a lawyer whose personal life is messy. A client who has been cheated out of compensation by his employer won’t listen to her counsel that he has no case — yet when she takes him to a male lawyer for a second opinion he accepts it. Incredulously she says, “Eight months of telling him that, and now it’s ‘OK’.”
This theme of speaking and being heard — or not — continues through the film. When her client takes drastic measures against his employer Laura is tangled up in it — the police casually send her into a hostage situation; her client casually threatens to kill her. And she takes it all, with a kind of simmering and disbelieving anger beneath the surface.
Gina (Michelle Williams) is another apparently successful woman who is building her dream home in the Montana countryside. But her relationship with her husband is rocky — didn’t we see him earlier in a hotel room with Laura? And her teenage daughter barely speaks to her. Her hunt for “authenticity” seems like a doomed mission.
My favourite story is that of the horse rancher (Lily Gladstone). We follow her lonely routine feeding and cleaning and caring for the horses, with barely any human contact.
Then one day she drives into town and wanders into an evening class taught by Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart), a flustered and overworked law graduate who is driving four hours each way to teach education law.
The rancher takes her to a diner after the class and gazes on as Elizabeth talks about her life. What in another director’s hands could have been a big romantic drama here becomes a subtle, moving short story. The rancher barely speaks a word, but her face tells us she has fallen hard for this educated, charismatic young woman.
Kristen Stewart is also excellent here, at first completely oblivious to the rancher’s feelings and then uncomfortable and wordless when confronted with them.
The film uses the landscape and the sounds of nature — as well as trains and radios — to build up a sense of space and beauty but also of routine and the knowledge that life goes on.
It is a quiet, slow film, which handles emotions and daily struggles often either ignored or overplayed in cinema.