This past weekend I attended the opening night of the film, Certain Women at The Ross followed by a Q&A with director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves). Over the past decade, Reichardt has become one of my favorite working directors. I like her because she doesn’t make normal movies. At least, not relative to what’s showing at your everyday multiplex. She makes extraordinary movies because of how unassuming her characters and situations are. She takes the familiar and opens our eyes to how the monotony of life can be a source for intrigue and drama. This normalness is what makes her films different. Different in that they usually have little to no plot, spoken dialogue is sparse, subtext is abundant, and one’s connection with setting is so real that you feel immersed in every sound, texture, and chill. Certain Women is Reichardt at her transcendent best.
I’m tempted to say Certain Women isn’t for everyone. But really, it is. (Or at least in my mind it is.) It’s the kind of movie we see bits and pieces of ourselves in. It’s the kind of movie that makes us look inward. The film won’t wow you by any conventional means. But it will linger inside of you. And any film that lingers and is thought-provoking is a film worth seeing.
The film is broken up into three loosely tied storylines, each following a strong, independent, yet, lonely woman living in Montana. Each are compelling, complex, and flawed. The acting, and situations are so achingly real we never have time to think, “Is this going anywhere?” When one storyline is complete we cut directly to the next with little to no closure. Only once does Reichardt even indulge us with background music to help support the emotional weight of a moment.
Movies are built upon the little moments. The moments when nothing extraordinary is happening. Moments when characters have nothing to say. (The rancher (newcomer Lily Gladstone) sits across from Beth (Kristen Stewart) and her deep desire to connect and have her feelings reciprocated is both painful and beautiful and expressed in near silence.) Moments when even the most bizarre of characters seem relatable. Without these little, intimate moments, any larger-than-life circumstance almost always falls flat.
In today’s cinema, the viewer is well aware that all of those explosions, space crafts, creatures, stunts, and falling skyscrapers we see in just about every blockbuster are nothing more than computer generated imagery. Nothing is real. And when nothing is real, nothing is at stake. To build stakes we need to care. To care we need to connect. To connect we need moments that make a character relatable, interesting, and human. This idea should be the foundation for most screenplays. Unfortunately, for most Hollywood films, the need and demand for plot plot and more plot and less need for developing character proves to be their downfall more often than not.
We want all of our characters to be multidimensional, right? Because we’re all multidimensional. It should bother us when we see characters that embody only one personality trait, or live up to a single stereotype. No matter how minor a character’s role is, the goal should be to enable opportunities for us to understand them. That’s good writing. That’s challenging writing. Good plot is challenging and rewarding in its own way too, but with more and more plot, comes less and less time for developed characters. And if you have uninteresting characters, then your plot only exists for style points.
Reichardt’s films are great examples of how you can have a simplified plot but lots of character development and still have an engaging film. Whereas films with little character focus but loads of plot almost always bore me to death. So, am I willing to say Certain Women, a slow-paced music-free film about rural life and feminism is more captivating than say, Spectre, a huge globe-trotting blockbuster film starring my beloved James Bond character? I’d say yes.
Take this for example: One of the three stories in Certain Women has Michelle Williams playing a wife and mother who is interested in buying sandstone that’s been sitting in an elderly friend’s yard for decades so that she can use it in the construction of their family’s new home. That’s the surface level story. No villain. No inciting incident. No twist. No real ending. We get understated characters having run-of-the-mill exchanges. But because of Reichardt’s direction and the acting abilities of the cast, within a few minutes we know our characters in-depth without knowing exactly what their story is. There’s tension, expectations, and history. This section of the film explores sexism, attachment, neglect, subtle undermining of others, preservation, caring for the elderly, and respect. But all of that lives somewhere deep inside the subtext of these scenes. You just have to be willing to dig it all up.
Certain Women is a contemplative film with many layers. It’s a film made by women about women. That in itself is something to behold. In a time when the movie industry still has an unbelievably low passing rate for the Bechdal Test, this film not only stands out, but has a lot to say.
It’s a beautiful film both audibly and visually. The actors are all superb. Reichardt acts as writer, director, and editor of the picture and her singular vision is a rarity even amongst indie films. It’s worthy of any recognition.