Arts Review

Certain Women, Film Review by Marc Glassman

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Certain Women
Kelly Reichardt, director and script, based on stories by Maile Meloy

Starring: Laura Dern (Laura Wells), Kristen Stewart (Beth Travis), Michelle Williams (Gina Lewis), Lily Gladstone (Jamie), James LeGros (Ryan Lewis), Jared Harris (William Fuller), René Aubergonois (Albert), Sara Rodier (Guthrie Lewis)

Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart offer brilliant performances in Certain Women, the latest feature by acclaimed American Indie director Kelly Reichardt. The three actors are joined by a fourth, newcomer Lily Gladstone, who is absolutely arresting as an Indigenous cowgirl who finds herself falling quietly in love with a law teacher played by Kristen Stewart. It’s just one of three stories that unfold in Reichardt’s sensitive, minimalist film set in contemporary Montana.

The film begins with a startlingly affecting drama involving a lawyer named Laura Wells (played by Laura Dern) and her difficult, emotionally vulnerable client, Fuller (Jared Harris). Dern’s Wells has tried repeatedly to explain to Fuller that he can’t get any more money from the company that fired him—and paid him off with a minimal figure—at least a year earlier. We can see echoes of Trump’s America in Harris’ character, who feels he’s been played a bad hand and wants justice—and more money—when none is available.

One of the beautiful aspects in Reichardt’s film is that we’ve already seen Dern nearly naked and vulnerable with a lover (James LeGros) who is about to dump her before she meets up with her client. Our sympathies are with Dern but we understand that her client also is suffering terribly. The trajectory of the relationship between Dern’s lawyer and Harris’ jerk-as-victim Fuller is surprisingly dramatic for Reichardt but she never loses sight that she is making a character drama.

In the second story, James LeGros’ character Ryan emerges again, this time as the husband of Gina, empathically played by Michelle Williams. Accompanied by their typically angry daughter Guthrie, the couple is building a dream house in the country for Gina. Here the story revolves around the growing dementia of Albert, who gives them native sandstones, which will help to make Gina’s dream come true. It’s an ineffable drama, with no one winning or losing. They’re simply playing out the parts dealt to them.

In the third tale, Kristen Stewart’s young urban lawyer doesn’t understand that her presence has spurred feelings in a young Indigenous woman played by Lily Gladstone. A ride that the two take on horseback to a local diner and a final conversation at a parking lot dramatize romantic love better than most films made in the past decade.

With the release of Certain Women, long time supporters of director Kelly Reichardt may be permitted to hope that this time she may finally have her moment in the sun. The signs are good. The Hollywood establishment has been rocked for several years by outcries from such big media sources as the New York Times and the UK Guardian about the rampant sexism that still stifles creativity by women in film. No one expects Hollywood to offer parity to women in the directorial field but how about 30 percent? Right now, apart from Sweden, there’s no country in the world that has even 25% of their films directed by women.

Then there’s Reichardt. She may be the textbook case for a director who deserves greater recognition. Reichardt has been making films since 1994 and started directing features in 2006. Her five full-length films have received acclaim at festivals and from critics, in particular Wendy and Lucy (2008) about a homeless woman played brilliantly by Michelle Williams (and her dog), and Night Moves (2013) a radical environmental film, which starred Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as activists who blow up a dam.

Certain Women is a beautiful film, well worth viewing. And Kelly Reichardt is a director that deserves support. Why not see her film this weekend?

Click here for more film reviews from Marc Glassman.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

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