The first thing you notice when watching Certain Women is how cramped it feels. A lot of films shot out in the American west, with sprawling plains and mountains in the distance, use very wide images. Quentin Tarantino made a huge deal of using the widest Ultra Panavision lenses, with a 2.76:1 aspect ratio, when filming The Hateful Eight, even though most of the scenes were indoors. But Kelly Reichardt and her regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt capture shot after shot of Montana’s big sky country in “flat” 1.85:1 images. Even out in the open, we feel hemmed in.
The myth of the American west has always been about freedom and expanse. It’s a place a man can go to get away from everything and do as he chooses. But even in the west, a woman’s options are more narrowly circumscribed. Certain Women adapts a triptych of short stories from Helena-born Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. Each of them finds a woman pushing towards the life she wants in a way that would be much more easily granted to a man, if he weren’t assumed to have it in the first place.
This is clearest in the first story, where Laura (Laura Dern) runs her law practice out of Livingston. She spends eight months trying to convince a client (Jared Harris) that he gave up his right to sue over a workplace accident when he accepted a settlement right away. But five minutes with a lawyer in Billings — two hours’ drive each way — and he believes it. And then when he breaks into an office and takes a security guard hostage trying to find the records of his case, she’s the one who has to get up in the middle of the night to go talk with him. All this emotional labor, spinning wheels and getting nowhere, is just expected of her in a way that it isn’t of her male colleagues.
Emotional labor is the order of the day for Gina (Michelle Williams), as well. Her daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier) is almost grown, and her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) is helping her build a house on some land they bought outside of town. But there’s still a sense of walking through molasses, struggling for each step. Guthrie is checked out, as all teenagers are to some extent, and Ryan doesn’t seem nearly as invested in the house as Gina does. They make a stop in to see an aging musician friend, Albert (Rene Auberjonois), and ask him if they can buy the sandstone remains of an old schoolhouse that have lain in the tall grass on his property. Gina wants the house to use local materials, so it will be “authentic”, but she doesn’t seem to know what she wants the stone for. She has an idea of happiness in her head, but has lost sight of how her day-to-day actions relate to it.
Jamie (Lily Gladstone) tends horses on a ranch in Belfry. Out of boredom and loneliness as much as anything, she stumbles into a night course on school law, taught by a Beth (Kristen Stewart), a young lawyer who took the freelance job out of worry she wouldn’t be able to find a real position. But then she did, and now she has to drive for hours each way to get to the class twice a week. She doesn’t even know much about the subject to begin with, and most of the people in the class are teachers who are more interested in how they can use the the law as a weapon to make their lives easier. Beth feels like a fraud who’s already conned her way up above the shoe-sales job that’s all she thinks a woman from her family has any right to expect. But to Jamie she’s worldly and sophisticated and romantic.
As is usual for Reichart, Certain Women is extraordinarily calm, but there is turbulence below the surface. She holds on the women for a long time, capturing detailed and layered reactions. They’re hardly effusive or expressive, the way that most dramatic performances tend to be, but these women hardly have the luxury of that space. They turn inwards, and it’s only Reichart’s patience that gives us enough time to notice it.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.