Review: Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt delivers a beautifully judged triptych of quietly powerful drama. Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern shine, but Lily Gladstone’s breakout steals it.

Opening on a breathtaking vista of rural Montana’s snow-capped mountains illuminated by the spotlight glare of a thunderous train rumbling through, from the outset writer/director Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women has a painterly quality to it that’s quite beautiful.

The surprisingly present sound of not-so-silence swirls in the air, with Christopher Blauvelt’s ethereal cinematography capturing this small-town outcrop of America’s northwestern extremity in a way that is only enhanced by gifted filmmaker Reichardt’s delicately layered triptych of quiet human drama.

Adapted from the short stories of Montana author Maile Meloy, Laura Dern, always magnificent, ably demonstrates the power of performing without saying a great deal in a hotel room liaison with James Le Gros’ Ryan, a philandering married man.

We join the scene immediately after their tryst, as both Dern’s lawyer, also called Laura, and Ryan dress in separate rooms, her quiet disappointment at his immediate cessation of intimacy reflected in a circular mirror.

There are no car chases or shoot outs in this gently engrossing movie, folded in with both human warmth and coldness. This even when, after a frustratingly obsessive client, Jared Harris’ frayed Fuller, involves her in an absurd hostage situation.

Looking to win an unwinnable compensation claim from the employers he foolishly signed away his rights to, Laura’s exasperated by Fuller’s continuous presence, despite a sort of motherly care for his predicament. There’s frustration, too, that he only gives up on his hope of winning after a male colleague confirms what she’s been telling him for years.

Michelle Williams, working with Reichardt for the third time after Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy, also shoulders her burden with stoicism, helped by the odd sneaky cigarette as Gina in a central segment that sees her struggling against the apathy of her distant husband.

Gina dreams of building them a grand old home from an admittedly meagre pile of local sandstone in the front yard of lonely old Albert (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Rene Auberjonois). The rubble dates back to the area’s first school. In a film all about women getting on with things under their own steam, Gina receives precious little support from her teenage grump of a daughter (Sara Rodier).

If this bridging section and its smartly underplayed link to Dern’s is the least overtly affecting, it’s followed by the most emotionally resonant third. Indigenous actor Lily Gladstone is incredible in her breakout performance as Jamie, a lonesome farmhand tending to horses. She falls for Kristen Stewart’s out-of-town frazzled lawyer Beth on sight. Beth has been manhandled into teaching education law, something she has no background in, and has to drive four hours to deliver class.

Spotting the students going in, Jamie follows on a whim and ends up listening rapt twice a week before heading to the local diner with Beth, listening expressively as the other woman eats and speaks, though rarely interjecting.

The attachment of Beth’s talkative force of nature to the stoic Jamie is left intriguingly ambiguous, though the aching yearning on the latter woman’s part is without question. Delivered with such weight and grace in an almost silent role, it’s the sort of facial tour-de-force that if there were any justice in the world would launch a stellar career littered with awards. A car-set finale to this chapter is gloriously devastating in a sublimely understated way.

Reichardt never oversteps the emotive pull, balancing humour, heartache and the honest mundanity of life, honouring her characters and their small circles. When each receives a closing coda, there are neither fireworks nor schmaltz, simply resigned as they are to the status quo.

American cinema needs more like Reichardt, as do we all. A gloved gut punch of a film that discombobulates deftly.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords

★★★★1/2

Catch Certain Women at ACMI here. For full details on the Reichardt retrospective season, click here.

A version of this review first ran during the 2016 Sydney Film Festival.