In what I envisaged to be an in-depth look into the tales of four women in the Midwest, I was as wrong as I was right about Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. Adapted from Maile Molloy’s collection of stories, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It and Half In Love, Reichardt graciously presents three stories of four women quietly surviving in Montana.
In what could have equally been well executed as three short films, Reichardt subtly develops a narrative in triptych form which doesn’t so much intertwine the stories rather more depicts how these women co-exist along side each other. While observing the women’s stories Reichardt has also maintained a distinct cinematic style and combines this aspect with significant attention towards Montana’s landscape.
Overlooking the narrative(s) and women is the ever-present setting of Montana’s mountains – inhabiting the beautiful but derelict location – whereby Reichardt strategically repositions our perception of space to focus on the relationships of the story’s four women.
Throughout this three part structure, there is a consistent disconnect between men and women and their inability to communicate and form stable relationships. The latter is first established through Laura (Laura Dern): a lawyer currently involved in an affair with Ryan (James Le Gros) meanwhile also drearily trying to shake her tenacious client Fuller (Jared Harris). Both men are aggravatingly needy which in turn creates a subtly hilarity in juxtaposition with Laura’s casual demure, which is amplified further during Fuller’s attempt at a hostage situation and her casual realness.
Throughout Reichardt’s work she successfully creates a gracious charm towards simplicity, while also establishing a grainy realistic approach to convey one’s hardship. Gina (Michelle Williams) reinforces the film’s theme of connection, or lack there of, as she balances her dwindling marriage to the unfaithful Ryan and a misplaced relationship with her daughter, all the while still attempting to nest by building a holiday home in Montana’s wilderness.
While trying to proposition their neighbour, Albert, into taking a collapsed school house’s remaining sandstone to create their holiday retreat, Gina’s dialogue is somewhat bypassed by him and redirected towards a predominantly passive Ryan. Both comic and obnoxious in his manner towards Gina, Albert shadows the significance of time and space in relation to gender roles as he represents an older generation, demonstrated by his assumption that Gina works for Ryan who coyly corrects him.
Reichardt continues to explore gender roles in the final and bitter-sweet chapter through a nameless rancher’s (Lily Gladstone) relationship with a young and rundown night school teacher Beth (Kristen Stewart). Working in a predominantly male profession and quite masculine in her attire, Gladstone exerts simplistic yet impactful physical gestures that connote an endearing lust towards Beth which drives this section of the narrative.
The four women challenge female stereotypes and Reichardt speculates this predominantly through the rancher – originally a male character in Molloy’s story – by her placement in a conventionally male-orientated environment and the way in which she exhibits the evolving aspects of gender roles and contemporary relationships. Unfortunately in this instance a relationship between the rancher and Beth is unable to form due to the harsh geographical distance that Beth must travel.
Distance in all three stories takes a prime role, whether like the latter it’s practical distance, or physical distance in Laura’s case as despite the intimate nature of her and Ryan’s relationship there is still an obvious disconnect. Interestingly more so, this is further examined by Laura’s relationship with Fuller in his attempts to come closer to her by trying to enter her physical space, yet he still remains emotionally far away.
This theme then transcends into Gina’s narrative with her martial status to Ryan which in turn reveals that even with their legal commitment to each other, there is still a fundamental bond missing. Indicated by Ryan’s affair with Laura, and Gina’s preference to be alone as she takes herself away into an empty space to smoke, suggestively an allegorical addiction that fills this void, it becomes more apparent that even with fully formed relationships, distance still divides the women’s ability to find a connection.
Amidst the women’s internal conflicts lays the greater space depicted through the landscape. Although evolution is represented by independent and progressive female leads, attention to tradition is ingrained in the slow mid-western setting connoted by echoes of Native American history still remarkably imbedded in this labouring environment.
A tranquil yet overbearing emptiness is established by the grainy palette aesthetic from the 16mm that fluently runs through each narrative, which arguably is the fundamental connection between these stories. Neither outspoken nor suited in body cons and equipped with superpowers, the four women challenge conventional female roles as they proceed to work and build in and around an environment most commonly associated with men. Certain Women will not be suited for every spectator, however as a result Reichardt intricately explores the female perspective while not adhering to the traditional melodrama genre.