Sure, it would have been nice to have a lavish Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women.” Multiple commentary tracks, behind the scenes footage, maybe even some animated storyboards for the sequence when the Rancher (Lily Gladstone) cleans out the barn.
But that’s not really the way Reichardt, who makes crisp, economical and devastating indie drams like “Wendy & Lucy” and “Old Joy,” rolls. No shot, no line of dialogue exists in her films without a purpose. So, it’s perhaps fitting that for “Certain Women,” which adapts three short stories by author Maile Meloy, the Criterion disc only has a triptych of short interviews with Reichardt, Meloy and producer Todd Haynes.
The film signals a bit of a shift for Reichardt, who for the first time is not adapting a short story by frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, and has left her usual environs of Oregon for Montana. Reichardt says in her Criterion interview that the production team used Livingston, Montana, considered one of the windiest cities in America, as their base of operations as they scouted locations around the state. In the end, they just ended up using Livingston in the film.
In the first story, a lawyer named Laura (Laura Dern) is dealing with a difficult client (Jared Harris), a contractor named Fuller who was injured in an accident. His employer was negligent, but the contractor took the first meager settlement he was offered, and now has given up his legal rights.
Laura has told him this for eight months, but he refuses to listen. So she takes him to a male lawyer, who tells him the same thing. And he instantly accepts it. There’s a world of hard understanding about what being a woman is like in those few scenes.
In the second story, Michelle Williams (who has been in several of Reichardt’s films) plays a wealthy, tightly-wound woman named Gina who has a tense relationship with her husband (James LeGros) and teenage daughter. (More tense than she knows — we saw the husband crawling out of bed with Laura in the first segment).
Reichardt is expert at showing the small disagreements and conciliations in an unhappy marriage, and how children ally themselves with parents in the midst of such squabbles. Long silences reign in her movies, and conversations in her films are like boats on a river, one moment suddenly rushing forward in a current, the next unexpectedly running aground.
Gina wants to build a country house using sandstone from a demolished old schoolhouse, and on the way home the family stops by the stones’ owner, Albert, (the fantastic Rene Auberjonois) to make him an offer. Gina is direct and blunt behind her neighborly smile, while Albert talks in digressions and arabesques, and the scene builds a palpable tension between their competing agendas, in the uneasy space between transaction and conversation.
The third segment is the longest and the most emotionally vivid. The Rancher spends her days alone, taking care of horses. Reichardt reuses the same angles repeatedly to show the drudgery of the day-to-day work.
One night, on a whim, the Rancher comes into town and slips into a law class taught by Beth (Kristen Stewart). The Rancher is drawn to Beth (Meloy notes that Reichardt changed the Rancher’s gender in adapting from page to screen, a major change.) They go to a diner together, and talk, and the Rancher struggles to reach out to this shy woman. Gladstone, in particular, is so moving as the Rancher, hiding her urgent feelings under a laconic “Yes, Ma’am” cowboy exterior, but clearly aching for human connection.
Each of the three stories are something less than narratives, something more than character sketches. We spend time with these people and move on. Reichardt lingers on the details — the tiny handwriting the shy Beth uses to write her name on the blackboard in class, or the chic Western wear boutique that the Rancher, a genuine cowboy, gazes into.
In his interviews, Haynes approaches the movies as a fan, pointing out even more key details that I missed upon first viewing. “There’s something that the frame is telling us before the characters even know it.”
Painted in grays and browns, with little music and long silences, “Certain Women” forces you to notice things, the tiny complexities that make up the human condition. In their own ways, each of these three independent women are forging ahead in a world that doesn’t quite understand them. It’s a lonely thing to do.