MOVIE REVIEW: Certain Women

(Image courtesy of IFC Films)


“Spareness” and “simplicity” are the two chief elements of extremity in the definition of minimalism within art forms including film.  Minimalism can be a challenge.  Spareness and simplicity can either be a fountain of nuance and austerity or it can be a vacuum of plainness and lethargy.  Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt is a celebrated torchbearer of the minimalist film movement and her newest feature, “Certain Women,” boast three strong female leads in Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kristen Stewart.  Despite that base of acting forte and the patronage of Todd Haynes as an executive producer, the void outweighs any wellspring.

The characters of “Certain Women” live in and around the county seat of Livingston in southwestern Montana, a small town with a long-gone railroad and ranching history set against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.  It is a place of layered clothing for warmth, metaphorical socioeconomic bootstraps in need of pulling, and not-so-brisk air of quiet indifference.   Reichardt’s film is a three-episode anthology of Livingston women each facing a small measure of adversity in some shape or form during the late fall season before winter.

Laura Wells (Dern) is a meager lawyer trying to dispense a stubborn, disgruntled client named Fuller (Jared Harris) in a losing workplace injury and wrongful termination case.  Gina Lewis (Williams) is an annoyed wife to Ryan (James LeGros) and mother to a despondent teenager (Sara Rodier) all stuck living in a tent as they prepare to build a new country home.  Lastly, the introverted ranch hand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) stumbles in a random school law class and befriends the beleaguered course teacher Beth Travis (Stewart).

True to its minimalist approach, each chapter of “Certain Women” starts and ends with minute steps of transition, scant overall resolution, and extremely minuscule common connections outside of the Livingston location.  Based on introspective short stories of Montana author Maile Meloy, each cinematic passage has a soft target it is strolling towards in a short amount of time.   We observe Fuller getting upset and taking hostages at his former workplace, Gina and Ryan negotiating with an older neighbor (Rene Auberjonois) over some sandstone, and Jamie and Beth bonding over a shared affinity for horses and diner food.

Despite reserved pitch-perfect acting from the leads and supporting characters to embrace the conservative natures of the stories and characters, all of what transpires is beyond slight in terms of discernible or tangible significance.  Though it carries a domestic sense of realism and fair simplicity in rustic Montana, there is so little pull for audience investment.  Sorry, but a minor lawyer pickle, haggling seniors for construction materials, and girl talk over cheeseburgers are not compelling narratives to carry attention and interest.  

The sum total of growth or progress is merely fractional and quite disappointing, considering the assembly of talent.  The film is joyless and charmless (and nearly scoreless from composer Jeff Grace, who lights up the screen this week with “In a Valley of Violence”) where little is gained.  Instead of representing a tapestry of unified themes, female empowerment, and emotionality, “Certain Women” feels like three thin and incomplete story ideas that could not stand on their own and are not improved when loosely woven together.

LESSON #1: DESOLATE PLACES CREATE DESOLATE PEOPLE-- Common struggles, be them family, career, or personal challenges, are made more difficult by small settings, isolated situations, and surrounding socioeconomic limitations.  Contagious bleakness can multiply and become a town-sized culture.  

LESSON #2: ACT ON YOUR OWN VOLITION-- With those lonesome hurdles in mind, one strong positive of “Certain Women” is the visibility of willful decision-making coming from female points of view.  We observe their internalized motivations to examine, weight, and ultimately make their own personal choices in spite of or even without men in the picture.