One of the hardest jobs of a film critic is trying to engage in a film that fails to engage with you. It's easy enough if the reason it doesn't engage can be laid at the feet of poor acting, poor plotting, poor directing or any other number of tangible critiques that can keep a critic at arm's length. But when those flaws are not particularly noticeable, when there is nothing particularly noteworthy to complain about, things get a lot thornier. You're forced to confront yourself with words like "fine" and "adequate" and other beige words that do nobody any good.
Such is the predicament I find myself in having walked out of a theater showing Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women. Reichardt is one of those filmmakers who isn’t known by most but is beloved by those who do. Films like Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves are highly regarded in independent cinema circles, with stories that tend to focus on characters in the rural western half of the US. Certain Women, based on a series of short stories, is a triptych of loosely connected stories about women living in Montana. Laura (Laura Dern) is a lawyer saddled with an unhinged client (Jared Harris) who settled too early in his worker’s comp complaint and can’t let it go. Gina (Michelle Williams) is in the process of building a house for her husband (James LeGros) and daughter (Sara Rodier), and travels to the homestead of the elderly Albert (Rene Auberjonois) in an effort to purchase some sandstone on his land. Finally, a lonely ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) happens across a night course on school law taught by Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart), and soon becomes infatuated, traveling to every class despite not being enrolled in the course or having any interest in its subject matter. The tales intersect in the most perfunctory of ways, mostly by virtue of taking place in the same space, but they are very much three distinct stories of three women struggling to find their place in the world.
Certain Women is a quiet piece, one of little conflict (classic film conflict, at least) and less action. Reichardt’s point reveals itself slowly and deliberately through the portrayal of these three women, marginalized in their own lives despite generally living comfortably, shining a dim spotlight on the struggles that must be confronted every day. It’s been nearly 100 years since women gained equality through the right to vote, but Albert still won’t negotiate with a woman over the sale of his sandstone and Laura’s client won’t believe he has no case until they drive to a male lawyer who confirms what’s she’s been saying all along, and Elizabeth doesn’t even notice the Rancher as anything more than a girl who tags along at her class and accompanies her to a diner. Reichardt lets these vignettes breathe, forging her characters through quiet reflection and facial expressions more than grand presentations of inequity.
The tricky situation I found myself in, though, was coming to grips with the fact that, despite the quality of the acting and the serenity of the Montana vistas (especially notable in the third act), Certain Women did not move me. The trouble began with the film’s second act, the Michelle Williams story, which felt strangely slight and inconsequential in the moment, especially compared to the two that sandwich it. The meaning of Dern’s section and the melancholy of Gladstone’s were more readily apparent, which made Williams feel glaringly out of place at first blush, stalling the momentum that opened the film. This could easily be the result of misreading the section’s central conflict, the meeting between Gina and her husband and Albert; in the moment, it seemed to me that the negotiating struggle was the result of senility or dementia on Albert’s part, but on further reflection, the sense that he was ignoring Gina, an act of inherent disrespect by only truly engaging with the other man in the room, makes it fit into the puzzle much better. Still, the way it disrupted the energy of the film, which took some time to regenerate as my interest picked up in its last (and best) act.
Watching a film like this without true engagement can be difficult, as its purpose is at odds with the standard things we often seek in film. A mediocre blockbuster or studio comedy can be sustained by looking for the next plot point or joke, but that’s not an option with Certain Women. It turns into a case of viewing it as an academic, analyzing the parts at display without being able to piece them together into a satisfying hole. I will say that, regardless of the issues I had feeling in the moment for much of the film, the third story is legitimately great, a tale of two women meeting in this outpost in the middle of nowhere, one whose only other companions are a stable of horses and a dog, and the other forced into an eight hour commute twice a week because she’s at the bottom of her law firm’s totem pole. Yet even they don’t exist on equal footing, a wonderful statement on the emotional toll that comes from differing levels of interest in a friend, a companion, a potential paramour. And then Reichardt chooses to drop back in on all three women again, and the Williams story still feels out of sync with everything else, and just a little bit of that good will fades again.
Is Certain Women lacking because it failed to engage me, or am I lacking for failing to engage with Certain Women? It’s a difficult question to untangle, one that cuts to the heart of the relation of art and criticism. I understand what Reichardt was doing with the film, and I can see how it works and how others could have found greater pleasures from it. But I can only comment on my own perceptions at the end of the day, and from that perspective, Certain Women feels too illusory, a mist slipping through my fingers as I try to grasp it. It’s an odd experience, watching a film that has all the trappings of quality, but is missing something that ties it all together, but that is what has happened here. Reichardt is a vital director, just the sort of director whose presence and perspective is important in a constantly changing world. But for whatever reason, it just didn’t quite gel this time.