You know from the movie previews and the rumblings from the multiplex’s adjacent theater that today’s movies are heavily weighted toward “action films.” Writer-director-editor Kelly Reichardt could singlehandedly reverse that trend with Certain Women (trailer), which can most succinctly be described as an “inaction film.”
It’s kind of hard to get used to Reichardt’s pace, so you might watch this and think “Wha—?” Here, the drama is at the deep inside the characters, hidden from all views except the closest. And that’s what it gets from Reichardt—“a poet of silences and open spaces,” says A.O. Scott in the New York Times. Based on short stories by Maile Meloy, the film is set in and around Livingston, Montana, and the views of the lonely snowswept plains are breathtaking.
The story is presented in three separate vignettes that barely intersect. In the first, Laura Dern plays Laura Wells, a lawyer trying to convince her persistent client (Jared Harris) that he can’t sue his former employer for on-the-job injuries because he already accepted a settlement. The client doesn’t believe it until a male lawyer tells him the same thing. She’s disappointed at many levels—with her clients, her career, her love life.
The middle vignette involves Gina (Michelle Williams), a married woman with a disaffected teenage daughter. She and her husband are building a new house, and she hopes to convince a slightly addled, elderly neighbor (Rene Auberjonois) to sell them a pile of unused sandstone blocks in his front yard. Behind Gina’s bright smile, you can feel her irritation that the neighbor focuses his attention not on her request but on her husband, eliding the decision, and finally the husband sells her out. Even within the bosom of her family, it’s clear, she’s alone.
The dreamiest and most poignant sequence follows the young woman Jamie—beautifully underplayed by Lily Gladstone—on her daily routine, feeding and caring for a group of horses on a remote ranch. The repetitiveness of her tasks in the snowy, mountains in the distance, is mesmerizing. Her routine and her equilibrium are disturbed by a chance acquaintance with Beth, a harried young lawyer played by Kristen Stewart, overwhelmed by her own, very different grind. The extent of Jamie’s disturbance is painfully revealed in her quiet face, upon which “silent passion surges like an underground stream,” Scott says.
The acting is subtle and true, and Reichardt closely follows the dictum, “show, don’t tell.” Her characters don’t scream and rail and tell you what their issues are. You see it laid bare in front of you.
Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 91%; audiences 51%, a discrepancy that’s no surprise.