Certain Women Review

The Plot

Inspired by the various short stories of Maile Meloy, Certain Women follows the intersecting lives of four women in small town America. Following a lawyer, domineering wife, lonesome rancher and exhausted teacher the film pieces together a loose narrative built around their collective and mostly mundane daily existences.

The Good

Director Kelly Reichardt is a celebrated independent cinema star and this film in particular attracted much praise and even the Best Film award at this year’s London Film Festival.  The Certain Women in question are all played by accomplished and popular stars, lending an instant attractive credibility to even the most understated of performances. Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Lily Gladstone and Kirsten Stewart each do their very best to inject as much meaningful emotional subtext as they can into their respective performances.

Supporting turns from Jared Harris, James Le Gros and Rene Auberjonois also helps to maintain a dramatic credibility for proceedings. Maintaining audience interest even when the films slow pace and minimalist style might be legitimately testing their patience. The film’s ambitious aspirations to spin a loose collection of trivial daily occurrences into a feature length narrative makes having a strong cast all the more essential.

Special credit should go to relative newcomer Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart. Their portrayal of the unlikely relationship that gradually emerges between a shy rancher and a flustered young teacher is arguably the film’s most intriguing passage. Stewart’s selfless supporting turn allows Gladstone to create a credible tender awkwardness and clear unspoken subtext to their dynamic.

The Bad

Those that lament indie cinemas many cliché mannerisms will certainly find plenty to dislike about Certain Women. For those that see this type of film as a meditative subtle masterpiece there will no doubt be many that view it instead as simply slow moving and even dull. To put that debate in some context, an entire third of the film is essentially devoted to the slight social awkwardness of purchasing a pile of rocks from an old man who may have some minor reluctance about selling.

Combined with a largely absent soundtrack and stark minimalist visuals, the film has a generally muted and reserved quality. Though undoubtedly the strongly assembled female cast and director Reichardt envisage the film as being some kind of  delicate examination about a feminine experience of small town life, in truth it’s often somewhat difficult to discern exactly what the intended message if any is meant to be behind the mostly banal proceedings.

Even when the film does occasionally deliver something potentially dramatic like a hostage crisis or romantic betrayal, it’s handled in such a stilted and trivial way that it largely stifles any actual excitement or intrigue. The film’s vague slice of life narrative approach also means that perhaps too much is left unspoken and unresolved. Audiences accustomed to seeing dramatic situations played out to a satisfying conclusion and meaningful resolution may not welcome the film’s more abstract approach.

The film consistently asks a lot of audiences to infer their own meaning and significance to proceedings. At times it also seems overly confident that its talented cast are simply compelling to watch no matter how potent that actual drama on display actually is.

The Ugly Truth

Certain Women will be enjoyed by those with a particular penchant for slow moving indie drama or perhaps with a special affection for any of the talented actresses involved. However for those less eager to work hard to find meaning in the mostly languid proceedings the film may prove fairly underwhelming.

Review by Russell Nelson

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