Based on a series of short stories by Maile Meloy, Kelly Reichardt’s latest film Certain Women interweaves the lives of three women in Montana, played by Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Lily Gladstone, each of them dealing with their own issues of isolation and prejudice.
We’re greeted with a stunning shot of the Rocky Mountains, positioned like an oil painting backdrop to the roaring freight train in the foreground. We meet Dern, a lawyer who has spent eight months dealing with a persistent client (Jared Harris). It’s a story that introduces two key themes for the film – the disenfranchisement that many blue and white collar Americans feel and the insidious sexism that is a sad part of daily life for so many women.
One of Reichardt’s strengths as a writer and director is her disinterest in melodrama or grand gestures. The sexism that Dern’s lawyer and Williams’s ambitious family woman are subjected to isn’t crude sexual language or denied opportunities. It’s Dern’s client only accepting an answer once it’s come from a male colleague. It’s Williams being ignored in favour for her husband (James Le Gros) when negotiating the purchase of sandstone.
And while these stories are affecting, and while the performances highlight real issues in a believable way, they pale in comparison to the film's stunning, tender third act. To say that Lily Gladstone has an exciting career ahead of her is a massive understatement. She excels as a lonely ranch hand who starts attending a night class in educational law in search of company, where she meets dissatisfied teacher Beth (Kristen Stewart).
Gladstone is a revelation in the role, portraying a range of emotions with a few simple facial expressions and Stewart matches her scene for scene with a grounded performance that mirrors the disappointment so many millennials feel, as they leave education to find out the careers they’ve worked so hard for can too often involve eight-hour round trips and tasks no one else is willing to do.
As this third act comes to a close, it becomes one of the most quietly devastating pieces of cinema in recent memory. There’s no shouting, no big confrontations; instead, it’s something far more relatable and upsetting.
This final tale would be worth the price of entry alone, but the fact that it’s preceded by two excellent companion pieces makes Certain Women one of Reichardt’s best, the film's leisurely pace allowing viewers to take in not only the beautiful scenery that backdrops each scene, but also the quiet power of the stories in the foreground.