Certain Women suffuses message in low-key cinematic technique — a film review

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Miami born writer-director Kelly Reichardt is not known for making movies with overt narratives or clear messages. With Certain Women, her sixth feature, some film goers may find it a challenge to notice the drama behind the downplayed victories of the titular women. But that’s the movie’s point.

Based on short stories by Maile Meloy, Certain Women follows three loosely connected women living in wide open Montana asserting themselves for slight moments of growth within cinematically downplayed confrontations. Laura Dern plays Laura Wells, an attorney who is pushed around by her client Will Fuller (Jared Harris), a man steeped in a bitter divorce who imposes himself at his own convenience. Michelle Williams is Gina Lewis, a mother planning a dream home but caught between the disaffection of her daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier) and husband Ryan (James Le Gros). Both father and daughter get along much better when mom isn’t around mothering. We also first meet Ryan as he is having an affair with Laura. Finally, there is the isolated rancher Jamie (Lily Gladstone) smitten with Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) after she stumbles into Beth’s “school law” class for teachers.

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These are women who can hardly be heard above men who amble through their lives with little regard to the women’s value as key players in these men’s lives. In the case of Beth and Jamie the lack of men allows for a tender relationship even if its non-reciprocal. Without being too cartoonish (maybe the one exception being Will), the men in Certain Women are brash and aggressive, often passively so. Sometimes these men can hardly recognize their own cruel entitlement. Though often casual in displaying these traits, the men act in a manner that keeps women silent, which has a sort of spectral effect on the story of Beth and Jamie. In effect, seemingly small acts speak to an institutionalized abuse among the sexes, more disturbing than the cute idea that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. The film instead clearly reflects the issues symptomatic of our patriarchal society through tone, mood and incredibly, sensitively modulated performances by these women actors.

To respect this dynamic calls for dampening the intensity in drama and action. Reichardt captures the lack of action in a film drawn out with plenty of seeming inaction. The camera is distant, for the most part, calling on the performances to project an intensity and clarity from stillness. These are people in isolation, working for personal wins that are hardly ever noticed, recognized or rewarded. Life is kind of like that, though, isn’t it?

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Reichardt even stifles music for mood. More than once the soundtrack features a train horn in the distance, the rest of the world moving on in insignificance, a backdrop to seemingly insignificant action. If it’s not the train, it’s the wind. There’s a desolation effect in this soundtrack that renders the score by Jeff Grace almost literally moot, which is virtually the opposite of what he did for Ti West’s manly if comical In a Valley of Violence (In a Valley of Violence takes down revenge movie with black humor — a film review). To be honest, I don’t even remember hearing any extradiegetic music in Certain Women whatsoever.

The actresses at the center of the story expertly transmit inner tension with little external drama to give the film that slight, conflicted and very human quality of daily imperfection in the face of trying to make plans. The most poignant and resonant scenes may be those featuring Jamie, working alone on a horse ranch. With light humor and patience, the viewer learns the drudgery of her work in the face of prejudiced charms of working with horses, a romantic animal often associated with women. Beth even alludes to the notion early on to which Jamie barely musters more than a shrug.

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Reichardt both pays tribute to the strength of women while sounding an alarm bell for how unequally women have been recognized in today’s society. Early in the film, Laura basically defuses a hostage situation, but she is pushed aside by the cops (i.e. men), so they can do their work. These ladies do win big battles and show bravery. None of it seems grand, however, through the carefully calibrated lens and tone of Reichardt’s filmmaking. After all, she is translating a system that pays little respect to what women have to offer alongside men.

People have been programmed by the ease of the classical Hollywood form to point out clear heroes and villains. Reichardt, however, works in the film world fixed on realism, which is not as sexy as most cinema makes it out to be. Life is complicated and filled as much with disappointment as it is with victory. Behind Certain Women’s own seeming inertia lies a vivid critique of patriarchal society that is ineffective and powerless against the wills of women, even if this strength sometimes goes unrecognized. Reichardt’s style is ingenious in the face of this, resisting what casual film goers have come to expect of movie entertainment. The director is liberating the viewer of such constraints to celebrate not only what is essential in the characters but what is essential in the viewer’s own humanity toward the battle of the sexes.

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Programming Note: On Sunday evening, Nov. 13, join Independent Ethos’ co-founder and creative director Hans Morgenstern for a special screening of Certain Women at O Cinema Miami Beach, where he will host an exclusive group for a meeting with O Cinema co-founder/co-director Vivian Marthell. We will meet at 5:45 p.m. for check-in. Then Vivian will discuss indie cinema programming, lead a tour of the projection booth before Hans introduces the film to the group and watches it with him at 6:30 p.m. He will also be available to discuss the movie afterward. This is part of our new program “Independent Ethos Insider’s Tour of the Movies” co-sponsored by The Knight Foundation, Continental Film & Digital Labs and Magna-Tech. You can purchase tickets via this link:

Independent Ethos Insider’s Tour of the Movies

Look for the Independent Ethos event priced at $16. You also get a free drink (which includes beer or wine) and a small popcorn. Seating is very limited so buy your tickets ASAP.

Hans Morgenstern

Certain Women runs 107 minutes and is rated R. It opens in our South Florida area theatrically this Friday, Nov. 4 at the Miami Beach CinemathequeThe Tower Theater Miami, The Bill Cosford Cinema at the University Miami Coral Gables campus and in Fort Lauderdale at the Classic Gateway Theatre. On Nov. 11 the film expands to O Cinema Miami Beach. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link, and select “Watch Now.” The Miami Film Festival first premiered the film in the city during its Gems event, in October. They also invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of a capsule review, which you can read here. IFC Films provided all images used in this review.

(Copyright 2016 by Independent Ethos. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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