More noise than signal

Certain Women

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Certain Women was pitched to me by the slick, silvertounged salesman of the American Airlines in-flight entertainment system as the intersecting stories of three women blazing their own trail in small-town Northwestern U.S.A. This is what we used to call a lie, although I suppose it’s just an alternative plot synopsis these days. To the best of my recollection, the three strands of the narrative do not come anywhere close to each other, which I believe makes them anti-secting stories.

In our first strand Laura Dern plays a lawyer, also named Laura, representing Jared Harris’s Fuller, who’s refusing to take her advice that there is no basis to sue for further workplace accident compensation after previously accepting a low-ball offer. She has cause to wonder about institutional sexism when a second opinion, from a male colleague, is accepted without the months of questioning she received. The kicker to this comes when Fuller snaps and takes a security guard hostage at gunpoint in his former place of employment. Laura is called to act as a negotiator, the totality of which I assure you is a whole lot more low-key than a quick recap makes it sound.

The second strand sees a young family headed by Gina (Michelle Williams) and Ryan (James Le Gros) attempt to buy a quantity of sandstone from Odo aff Deep Space Nine (Rene Auberjonois), who appears to be on the cusp of some form of dementia.

That’s literally all there is to that strand.

The final story is often incorrectly stated as centring on Kristen Stewart, although the real protagonist is the rather strangely un-named on IMDB The Rancher (Lily Gladstone) who is, and stop me if this is a shock, a ranch-hand, specifically a temporary winter one with no roots or friends in the microscopic town she finds herself in. Lonely, she drifts into a late night class being taught by Stewart’s Elizabeth Travis, a lawyer from a town a four hour drive away who’s very much having second thoughts about the whole teaching gig. Over the course of a few weeks of the post-class trip to the diner, The Rancher tries to strike up at the very least a friendship with Elizabeth, who’s clearly not that into her. Between these one-sided conversations, really more of a moaning session on Elizabeth’s part, The Rancher goes through the repetitive motions of looking after the horses. The closest this gets to drama is when Elizabeth quits the class, and The Rancher impulsively decides to drive to Elizabeth’s town to track her down to say hello.

Which she does. Then goes back to the ranch.

Writer / director Kelly Reichardt has some chops to her, to be sure. The characters are well-drawn and believable, and the isolation and distance of the characters and the locations conveyed well by shots that aren’t necessarily the most obvious to select. It’s attracted a talented cast whom I’m generally quite fond of, and also Kristen Stewart. To be fair, even she’s eminently believable in her role and I can’t find flaw with the cast as a whole, with Laura Dern giving a particularly strong turn.

Furthermore, I’m sure there are people who either find themselves dealing with the isolation of small town life, or who do not receive the professional or familial respect they are clearly due, be they male or female, that will find something to connect with in Certain Women. I’m not altogether sure how much everyone else will get from it, though.

The pacing, as you’ve presumably already inferred from the recaps, is necessarily sedate. So sedate, in fact, that I fell asleep while watching it and had to rewind an hour of it, although that’s perhaps more a reflection on the conditions of my watching it than the quality of the film. However, I do have a fairly high tolerance for the glacially paced, and this is close to my limits, so it may well prove too much, or rather, too little for general audiences.

The Bechdel test remains disappointingly relevant, and while it’s nice to see a film fly over that bar, I can’t cut it any slack for, well, not really doing or saying very much. It’s not that the observations it’s making about the attitudes of men towards women aren’t valid, but they’re the same ones that have been obvious for decades, at the very least. I suppose, until that changes, it’s important to keep bringing them to the fore, but I doubt that Certain Women is going to do much to change attitudes – it’s really more of a choir-preaching exercise.

I can see the reasons for this having been warmly critically received, but it’s also quite clear to me why this is a limited release – a double bill of this and nigh-on any major studio general audience film would be quite the style clash.

Still, this is a warning in search of a problem. It’s the sort of film you’re only likely to have heard about if your cinematic tastes skew in its direction, and if so you’ll probably like what it offers up. If, however, this is the first you’ve heard of Certain Women, I’ll lay decent odds on you best leaving it alone.