New York Film Festival Review: Certain Women

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Kelly Reichardt’s deliberately paced set of loosely connected vignettes is almost anti-plot. Certain Women is set throughout the state of Montana and follows three women dealing with the lonely desolation by merely trying to connect. To achieve this vast sense of emptiness, though underscored with gorgeous shots of mountain ranges, Reichardt keeps things quiet stylistically, letting the camera linger in aesthetically soothing positions while the characters just live. The film is ambitiously slow, which is a piece of what makes it occasionally such an achievement, but also what limits how high it can go in terms of audience engagement.

We start with a lawyer (Laura Dern) who’s dealing with a most persistent client (Jarred Harris) that simply doesn’t have a case. Of the three vignettes, it’s the easiest to digest, introducing us to an empowering career woman who fits right in with the modern feminist movement, but doesn’t really challenge it. Plot wise, this episode has the most content, with some comparatively more crowd-pleasing moments than it’s companions can muster. Placed within the whole package of Certain Women, it’s the weakest of the bunch merely for being the most ordinary.

For the second vignette, we follow Gina (an outstanding as usual Michelle Williams) as she navigates mothering a snarky teenager and a marriage that lacks compassion and basic understanding. We see her come home after a run to her daughter and husband laughing at a joke we don’t see. She asks what they were laughing about twice before she gets an answer, with Williams putting up a cold vulnerability in her second request showing that she’s not just making conversation. This vignette is the least flashy and most nuanced. The family’s petty quest for some genuine sandstone is laced in the human yearning for connection, or even love when it’s possible. Here, Certain Women seems to say that love isn’t always readily available for everyone, but that that’s okay.

The final vignette is the most accessible, following a young horse rancher (Lily Gladstone) as she pines over a lawyer being forced to teach a night class (Kristen Stewart). Reichardt shoots the horses with majesty, putting the film at its most comforting here. It helps that Gladstone’s brand of acting is more expressive than Dern’s or Williams’, making this third act just a notch less challenging than the second to help steer the audience full circle.

And full circle we come. It’s hard not to wish that Certain Woman, for all it’s purposeful meandering, had a little more to say about the human condition than merely tapping into our need for acknowledgement. But then, these three women provide that for each other in a way, even while the script appropriately keeps them separated. The film is a reminder that we’re never alone in being lonely. It may not be a perfect expression of this inner sensation, but the film will stick with you long after you see it for it’s own unique ambition. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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