Kelly Reichardt’s richly detailed cinematic canvases have changed little in composition in her two decades of filmmaking. The world in which that art gets displayed has grown increasingly fast-paced and task-oriented. Each successive Pacific Northwestern-set film with its unhurried pace and character (as opposed to action) driven story feels slightly more rebellious than the last.
An well-known dictum from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” often gets deployed when describing the kinds of people on screen in Reichardt’s latest film, “Certain Women.” As the great American wordsmith put it, “The mass of [wo]men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Each of the four primary characters in the film’s three segments appears calm and relatively nonplussed by their circumstances. But beneath the stillness, a river of malcontent flows.
We do not spend but a brief episode with each of them, though their silent struggles are wholly realized. “Certain Women” lingers in the dead space between two questions Stanislavsky says all actors must answer for their characters – “What do I want?” and “What do I do to get what I want?” Reichardt never plays a story with as vague an objective as happiness or contentment, either. Laura Dern’s Laura Wells, a lawyer working with an obstinate and entitled male client, wants relief and understanding her trying scenario. Michelle Williams’ Gina Lewis, the yoga pants-clad mother and wife, wants the kind of satisfaction that can only come from swindling an elderly man into selling them sandstone at a cheap price.
In the most devastating portion of the triptych, the shy farmhand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) desperate for connection makes feeble attempts to befriend a community college adjunct professor, Kristen Stewart’s Beth Travis. For whatever reason, Beth has decided to take on an eight-hour roundtrip commute to teach a class which brings her no obvious intrinsic value or monetary gain. They share many a dinner but precious little of themselves.
While moving at a speed that many would compare to molasses, Jamie and Beth seem like they could use the kind of diuretic that “Certain Women” provides. By focusing on the small gestures, the simple systems governing our livelihoods, and the moments between moments, Reichardt creates a space to simply stop and live. Once you locate the rhythm of the film and arrive on its wavelength, the atmosphere of striving slowly amidst disappointment becomes gloriously overwhelming. B+ /