starring Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone
screenplay by Kelly Reichardt, based on stories by Maile Meloy
directed by Kelly Reichardt
by Bill Chambers I hate miserablism. I decided Kelly Reichardt wasn't for me after seeing Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and a few minutes of Meek's Cutoff, because even though they're about deeply unhappy people, their total void of humour bothered me. Relentless self-seriousness is teen angst, and incredibly unbecoming when the people on screen are adults and the filmmakers are, too. There's a moment near the beginning of Certain Women where Jared Harris sobs "Nobody understands how fucking miserable my life is!" (or something to that effect) that could be a panel from the MAD MAGAZINE parody of Reichardt's work, and I nearly fled the theatre until Laura Dern's reaction to Harris's wailing produced some titters in the audience, alerting me to the possibility that I had missed something crucial by not watching Reichardt's movies in public. Perhaps solitude blinds one to any levity in films about gloomy guses and lonesome outcasts. Be that as it may, Certain Women is definitely not as grim or hopeless as Old Joy, et al, despite its absence of anything resembling a conventional happy ending.
Paring Maile Meloy's 11-story collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It down to a trilogy, Certain Women tells the sequential tales of Dern's Laura, a small-town lawyer called in to help defuse a hostage situation involving one of her clients (Harris); Michelle Williams's Gina, who's building a house with husband Ryan (James Le Gros); and Lily Gladstone's Jamie, a young rancher in unrequited love with night-school teacher Beth (Kristen Stewart). The middle segment is easily the weakest, since it revolves around a very literary conceit--Gina sneaking cigarettes behind Ryan's back--that flatlines without the interiority of prose, and the way a hammy but affecting Rene Auberjonois overshadows Williams as an elderly neighbour who gives up a piece of his soul for Gina's project doesn't exactly help clarify the movie's title. Dern's chapter is engrossing, but when it demurs from paying off its ticking timebombs it feels less like an elevation of genre conventions than a haughty dismissal of them. Reichardt saves the best for last, as the inarticulate Jamie convinces herself she's courting instead of stalking Beth. Casting Stewart in a Reichardt movie is practically pandering to Film Twitter, but the character pings harmoniously off Stewart's offscreen role as the object of unwanted attention, and the actress being an icon gives the humble Beth a subtext of unattainability that seems almost crucial to processing her dynamic with Jamie. She has an aura.
The final looks that Gladstone and Stewart exchange go beyond acting: anyone who's been around long enough will recognize both of them and wilt. One wonders if--nay, wishes that--this two-hander could've sustained a feature. Shot in 16mm, Certain Women is typically uneven for the anthology genre, if also typically successful in that the good counterbalances the bad. Beyond Dern briefly materializing in the third section, the connective tissue is limited to motifs (animals, mostly, sometimes served between buns). The contextualizing input of a narrator, or bridging scenes with the Cryptkeeper, may not have gone unappreciated. Still, a redemptive effort for Reichardt, in my unpopular opinion; when John Getz shows up, she lets him bring all his waggish John Getz charm to bear. I'm moved to go back and catch up with Night Moves now. Programme: Masters