Most of the time, when a movie has no plot or interesting buildup, it’s a smart idea to stay far away from it for your own sanity (unless it’s so bad it’s good). After all, how is it possible to be invested in a movie that gives you no reason to care about it? When this happens, it’s a sign that truly horrible things happened during production.
On the surface, it would seem that Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” would be a waste of money because it lacks a plot. Based on three different short stories by Maile Meloy, “Certain Women” has no overarching story or focus. The intersections of the stories are in small cameos of characters appearing in each other’s stories. The only aspect that truly connects the characters is the lonely openness of rural Montana.
While this lack of a central plot feels like a problem at times, it’s actually not a death sentence for the film. Its strengths are in
“Certain Women” is a fascinating character study, focusing on the everyday lives of different women. A staunch slice of life, the film is strangely more interesting by not having a typical heavy-handed plot or intense action. The focus on characters going through their own struggles gives “Certain Women” a sense of authenticity and relatability.
The movie opens with lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) counseling her client, Fuller (Jared Harris), on giving up a workplace injury case. Fuller gives up the case only after getting the same advice from a male lawyer. He then descends into madness and seeks help from Laura in an increasingly obnoxious and dangerous fashion.
The stories jump quickly from one to another, with the end of Laura’s story cutting directly to the start of Gina’s (Michelle Williams), giving no time for reflection. As Gina and her husband Ryan (James LeGros) struggle with their marriage, they continue to try and build their home together. Searching for building material, they seek out eccentric and nearly senile Albert (René Auberjonois) to negotiate for sandstone.
The third story, while less exciting than the others, has the most complete narrative. Tired of her monotonous life on a ranch, lonely farmhand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) randomly enters an education law class taught by a young lawyer named Beth (Kristen Stewart). Jamie becomes infatuated with Beth and the two share an awkward relationship as the class progresses.
While the struggles of each character is authentic, the direction from Reichardt allows for deeper immersion. “Certain Women” is very atmospheric with long takes (a shot that lasts longer than normal) of the vast expanse of rural Montana. Other than being aesthetically pleasing, these shots give a sense that the main characters are alone in their struggles. There’s a sort of haunting beauty to these shots of rural land.
Long takes are especially common during the third story, but instead of building an atmosphere, they focus on character interactions. These shots accentuate the loneliness that Jamie feels before and after her conversations with Beth; it’s awkward yet heartbreaking, seeing the elongated reaction of Jamie’s failed attempts at connecting. There are times in “Certain Women” that feel awkward and needlessly prolonged with no dialogue, but the direction speaks more than the characters could in some instances.
Because the conflicts the characters face are realistic, “Certain Women” feels relatable. There’s always a person like Fuller that you just never feel like dealing with, family tensions are often a problem and everyone has that person they can’t keep their mind off of. It’s not only the specific conflicts in “Certain Women” that are relatable, it’s the feelings the characters have during them. It’s what makes the movie feel authentic.
While it’s easy to relate to Laura and Jamie’s struggles, Gina’s negotiations with Albert make you unsure if you’re supposed to approve of her actions or not. Sure, the sandstone may build a part of a home that’s needed to help a failing relationship, but at what cost? During these scenes with Albert, Gina’s actions feel manipulative. She forces him to make a decision on what to do with the sandstone that’s been his for years and that he’s very fond of. During Gina’s story, you don’t want the main character to win. It’s simple to feel sympathy for Albert, making his character much easier to relate to.
While the main characters of “Certain Women” carry the film, the roles of characters in the stories, such as Albert, are just as important. They also face problems that can be sympathized with.
Though Fuller’s obnoxious treatment of Laura is grating at first, his clinginess becomes understandable when the injustice of his workplace injury is revealed.
Undoubtedly the largest complication of “Certain Women” is its limitations. Barely over 100 minutes long, the film can only give about 30 minutes of time to each story and it shows. The first two stories end abruptly, not giving immediate closure; it’s a testament to Reichardt’s work that her characters are gripping enough in 30 minutes to want more of their story. The third story is the most impressive, telling a heartbreaking narrative that feels complete in spite of its limited screen time. Its ending is clear and not rushed.
“Certain Women” certainly isn’t for all. For those interested in complex and fascinating plots or intense action, the film satisfies none of those needs. Instead, it touches upon a more introspective and subtle aspect of filmmaking: a focus on normal people.