Film & Television

Movie Review: ‘Certain Women’ — Powerful Portraits of Ordinary Women

In the first story, we meet middle-aged lawyer Laura (Dern) who is having an affair (with Le Gros) that doesn’t feel particularly satisfying. At work, she manages a frustrating client relationship; a construction worker (Harris) was seriously injured on the job, but has no recourse because he accepted an initial settlement. Although Laura has explained his situation to him over and over, he only accepts it when he hears it from another lawyer. Laura gives him a ride home and in his desperation, he threatens to take a machine gun to his old employers’. Although Laura calms him down for the moment, their story does end up in an unlikely hostage crisis, which feels not so much about real danger but more like toothless despair.

In the second story, a younger couple, Gina (Williams, who has appeared in multiple Reichardt films) and Ryan (Le Gros, again) with a belligerent teenage daughter, are building a vacation house. A woman with some control issues, Gina feels undermined by her family. She focuses all her energy on the project, to the point of coercing an elderly neighbor, who may have cognitive impairment, to part with a pile of historic sandstone. She’s manipulative and insincere even as she marvels afterwards at how easy it was to get what she wanted. As her dream home gets closer to completion, it seems unlikely that it will fill whatever void she’s living with.

In the third and final story, an isolated young ranch hand, Jamie (Gladstone), wanders into an evening “School Law” class, and falls for the teacher, young attorney Beth (Stewart). They strike up an uneven friendship. After each session, they stop at a local diner where Beth eats and Jamie watches (she is enthralled and, we learn, too poor to buy a diner dinner). Despite a moonlit horseback ride, which is achingly romantic, Beth remains oblivious to Jamie’s feelings. Eventually Beth quits teaching (the class is a four-hour commute from her city job as a lawyer), and Jamie follows her in an ill-fated last-ditch effort to share her true feelings.

If you approach Certain Women looking for clever story intersections, or happy endings for that matter, you will be disappointed. Most of the action takes place in each of the characters’ minds. And, it’s a testament to Reichardt’s superb cast that the movie is as interesting and moving as it is. Newcomer Gladstone, in particular, is able to convey so much with so little. Raised on the Blackfeet Reservation in Northwestern Montana, Gladstone is an expressive arts activist with a focus on youth and education. In Certain Women, she more than holds her own with her more experienced castmates.

Despite the title and subject matter of Certain Women, the movie is not overtly about feminism. Yet a feminist message weaves its way subtly into each story. Laura’s client only believes what she’s told him when he hears it from a man. Gina feels discounted by the older gentleman who’s surprised to learn that her husband works for her and not vice versa. Beth tells Jamie that she never quite believed she’d be a lawyer because selling shoes is the best job any woman in her family could aspire to.

In reviewing Certain Women, I stand by my original assessment. Nothing happens. At least, nothing happens on the outside. The movie is a study of internal drama. Through intense, quiet dialogue and an ensemble of fine actors, Reichardt shares stories that are at once deeply personal, highly ambiguous, and ultimately fascinating.

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  • Mary Ann November 8, 2016 at 10:21 am

    I saw this with 3 friends a few nights ago (when we we given a extra hour). 10 minutes into the film someone gently tapped our gentleman friend to rouse him from snoring. Thank you for this review and putting words to my experience.