Since the mid-2000s, Kelly Reichardt has called Portland, Oregon home, and so that’s where she resumed directing feature-length films, partly due to encouragement from her long-term friend Todd Haynes. All of her previous films were unique takes on the area, from her western, Meek’s Cutoff to the eco-thriller Night Moves. Reichardt has had one flaw, at least for my liking: she has always struggled to end a film in a satisfying way. Wendy & Lucy (2008) probably came closest to overcoming this issue until her most recent film, Certain Women.
Certain Women is Reichardt’s first feature since her debut, River of Grass, to be set outside of Oregon. In this film she shifts her focus to a tiny town in Montana, which is the next state over from Oregon and Idaho. It’s a still a fairly rural part of the country, and is where the Badlands (as in Badlands) are located. The film is a triptych of stories of three women of various ages in the same town, stories that are very loosely and subtly connected in one way or another.
Laura Dern stars in the first segment as a lawyer who has to deal with a disgruntled male customer, played brilliantly by Jared Harris. Reichardt films the escalating incident with incredible calm and discipline. The second segment is undeniably the weakest, but according to the interview on the disc it seems to have been Reichardt’s favourite. It’s about an independent woman (as are all of the stories) played by Reichardt’s frequent collaborator, Michelle Williams, who wants to use an old man’s pile of sandstone because it’s an indigenous building material. She makes a deal against the backdrop of her failing marriage. It’s the one that seems slightly out of play despite having the most overt connection to one of the other stories. The rest are more parallels, but they do connect to one another through the action.
However, the final segment is what really makes the film. It’s about a young Native American woman, Jamie (Lily Gladstone), who is a ranch hand in an isolated area. She stumbles upon a night class on school law that is taught by Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) and they end up going to the diner together. She learns that Beth makes the eight-hour drive to teach the class to make some extra money while she continues with her real job. Jamie keeps coming back, despite having no interest in the topic and not even being enrolled on the course, and they keep going to the diner. Is it a sexual interest or is it simply that she is so isolated up on the ranch that she enjoys the companionship? it’s never 100% clear, and deliberately so. However, things turn heartbreaking when Beth decides to not continue teaching the class.
It’s a remarkably restrained film, with the minimalism you expect with Reichardt, but this time while it ends on an ambiguous note it nonetheless an ultimately satisfying conclusion. The cast are also across the board great. There are of course the three you’ve all heard of and would expect good performances from, but Lily Gladstone is a real discovery and hopefully she keeps getting more roles—especially in this age of a push for more diversity in Hollywood casting. Despite liking Reichardt’s other films, I found Certain Women to be a massive step forward into something slightly more palatable to a conventional audience, and in her case that’s actually a good thing, because she has strong stories to tell.
The film was a big favourite at festivals and for critics and had a DVD-only release a while back, but it’s now been added to the greatest collection of films in the world, The Criterion Collection. The disc isn’t loaded with extras, but it has interviews with Reichardt; the writer Maile Meloy, whose original short stories the film is based upon; and Todd Haynes, who was the executive producer on the film.