Certain Women is Honest and Empathetic

Although I had never seen any of her films, Kelly Reichardt is a filmmaker who I’ve admired for a while. How is it possible to admire an artist without having any experience with their work? Well my senior year in college I was the AV assistant for a freshman film theory course. I loaded up my schedule with every shift I could get, the result was essentially taking the same class five times a week. One week they covered Reichardt’s debut indie film River of Grass. For a week straight I watched the same two clips on repeat, and listened to the same lecture and class discussion over and over. Since that week I had been meaning to watch Sea of Grass. And Meek’s Cutoff. And Wendy and Lucy. Her films sit at a nexus of my taste: I love films that represent the world in an honest and unsensational way, but I have a terrible attention span and a generally sleepy disposition. So I never got around to watching her films. I even missed Certain Women when it was in theaters, but I was happy to attend a rooftop second run screening in late August.

Certain Women fully lived up to my hyped-up idea of what a Kelly Reichardt film would be like. Quiet, deliberate, and emotionally profound, even when actions on screen are profoundly mundane. The film, as signaled by the title, is about women. How the world treats them, and how they respond to the world. It tells three stories, mostly unrelated besides that they all take place in Montana.

The first follows a lawyer, Laura Wells (Laura Dern) and her troubling relationship with a needy client Fuller (Jared Harris). The second story observes a tense married couple and their teen daughter. Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) is on a mission to acquire a pile of abandoned sandstone from an old man’s property. The third part sees Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) stuck with a miserable four hour commute to a night job teaching school law. She strikes up a friendship with a quiet ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) who stumbled into the class. Each of these stories touches on the matter-of-fact expectations placed on women, to shoulder emotional labour for others. Reichardt is unafraid of depicting the banality of day to day life. She is also unafraid of depicting the infinite complexity of these people and their relationships.

In the first story Laura Wells is exhausted by Fuller, a client who refuses to take her legal advice seriously until he gets a second opinion from a man. He’s a desperate and depressed man debased by legitimate injustices, but he asserts his problems, his life onto Laura. She ends up taking responsibility for this man well beyond her job dictates. Because it’s expected. Laura is a reasonable person, so she helps him willingly- but it’s not like she has a choice. Fuller essentially throws himself off a cliff at Laura, daring her to not catch him.

Things escalates significantly when the police call Laura to Fuller’s old workplace, where he’s holed up with a hostage at gunpoint. The police men hardly consult her as Fuller’s legal counsel, but rather as a bargaining chip. This scene eloquently and powerfully drives home the theme of Laura’s exploitation as a caregiver, while simultaneously showing compassion for the obvious villain of the scene: Fuller. His banter with his hostage remind you of his humanity, even as he’s terrorizing. Reichardt does this throughout the film’s three parts. She exposes the subtle (and less subtle) injustices women face on any given day, while refusing to reduce any character (on any side of the injustice) to anything short of a complicated human being.

Battle of the Sexes came out last weekend. I haven’t seen it, but it looks like a straightforward, pop culture depiction of sexism. An overt misogynist challenges a woman, who must defeat him. It’s not uncommon for stories to reduce conflict to good vs evil, and that distillation is often the basis for great, insightful storytelling. However, Certain Women transcends the common binary these issues are often reduced to.

I give Certain Women 10 empty gas tanks out of 10 endless Montana plains.

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