There’s something to be said for using cinema to present life as it’s actually lived. To eschew cheap dramatics, to avoid cliche and formula, to stay true to some inner sense of what is authentic and real — these are practices and aspirations to be praised.
The only difficulty is that real life is often boring. It’s so boring that people have been known to leave the house, drive for miles and actually pay to sit in a big room, with a screen on one side, just to see the reflection of more exciting realities.
So the trick for any filmmaker who aspires to use film to present a vision of real life — whether you’re talking about Bergman, Ozu, Antonioni or Kelly Reichardt, the director of Certain Women — is to find the hidden drama in the everyday. To find the living pulse that others miss.
Certain Women is an attempt to do that, and just for that reason, it’s worthy of attention. It tells three separate stories involving three separate women, living in Montana. Their lives intersect only casually. One lives on a farm, another is a lawyer, another is taking a night class.
And this much can be said with close to complete certainty: Their lives are more boring than yours. Their lives are a lot more boring, and this is how you can know for sure. If you go to Certain Women and it’s the most boring thing you do that day, then you know that these women have it worse than you do.
And yet … there’s a distinct talent at work here and an underlying intensity and purpose to this film that must be recognized, that almost can’t not be recognized. Reichardt is attuned to her characters and alert to her actors in a way that’s practically biological, as though she had tentacles or snail feelers. This sensitivity results in scenes that pop, that somehow jump out and arrest attention, even though the situation depicted is mundane.
Just one example of this. Michelle Williams plays a rural woman who wants to build a sandstone wall in her home. She and her husband go to see a man (Rene Auberjonois) who has a lot of loose sandstone on his property, and they ask if they can buy it from him. This is what’s weird: He doesn’t seem to answer her. He just focuses on her husband. He doesn’t seem reluctant to part with the sandstone. There’s simply something unknowable in the social dynamic that’s very peculiar.
Every one of the segments has one scene like this. Laura Dern plays a lawyer whose former client (Jared Harris) was injured in an accident and should have had a strong personal-injury case. But he settled for too little, and the law won’t let him go back and ask for more.
Lily Gladstone is a rancher who stumbles into a night class on education and law and stays because there’s something about the woman who is teaching it. It’s clear that she is falling in love with the teacher (Kristen Stewart), but she doesn’t seem to have the words to express it.
These are situations with an inherent integrity and truth, and in Certain Women they are presented to us with precision and subdued (or smothered) passion. But for every scene that somehow jumps out like a fish in a placid stream, there are five or six others that just lie there, including stretches of silent, rote activity that are without any apparent possibility of interest.
Thus, we end up with a movie in which it becomes very possible to respect the intent and yet be frustrated by the result.
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☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams
Rated: R (strong language)
Running time: 107 min.