Screens

Review: "Certain Women" with Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone

Even in crisis situations, these people are not prone to a polished repartee

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Lily Gladstone
  • Lily Gladstone


Certain Women is based on three short stories by Montana native Maile Meloy. Writer-director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff) sticks to the source material with a notable exception. In the last story, she changes one of the characters from male to female. I didn't read the print story, but I can tell you that the segment is the best one in the film, in large part because of the casting.

The movie stars Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Montana native Lily Gladstone, who was born and raised in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Gladstone has a quality about her; she manages to appear weighed down by the realities of life without losing the twinkle in her eye. I'm not sure whether what impressed me was an actor gifted at her craft or simply a glimpse at the real person. Either way, I'm looking forward to seeing more from Lily Gladstone.


In the first story, Laura Dern plays a small town lawyer with a troubled client. The man (Jared Harris from Mad Men) is a construction worker upset because he didn't receive the workman's comp due him. The story opens with Dern's character having a sexual liaison with a married man, and includes a hostage situation with the aggrieved laborer. Sounds exciting, doesn't it?


Here's the part of this piece where I get to be useful. To best enjoy this movie, you need to understand that the story I just described is engaging and perfectly acted, but not exciting in the way most people associate with a traditional Hollywood movie. Kelly Reichardt's tale is carefully observed and quiet. The people interact like most people do – even in crisis situations, they are not prone to grand speeches and polished repartee.

They talk. They avoid talking. Sometimes they get mad, but it usually doesn't get theatrical. On the rare occasions when it does, it doesn't last long.

If that sounds interesting to you, there's a good chance you'll find a lot to appreciate in this film. If that sounded boring, there's an excellent chance you will be annoyed at Reichardt's deliberate pacing and attention to detail.

Kristen Stewart
  • Kristen Stewart

The second story involves a family wrapping up a camping weekend. Michelle Williams plays the wife, and James Le Gros the husband, who happens to be the married man sleeping with Laura Dern's character. I don't know why Reichardt did that – it makes no difference to the stories and appears to be the only linking device in the movie.

Anyway, William's character wants to build a cottage out in the sticks for weekend getaways. She wants to make it entirely out of repurposed materials from the area, and she has spotted a pile of sandstone on the front lawn of a seventy-something man (veteran character actor Rene Auberjonois). They go to visit him and, while their teenage daughter waits in the car, maintaining her apparent steady state of sulkiness, they talk.

The exchange is uncomfortable. We watch her chat with the man, observing the social niceties. She knows what she really wants, we know what she really wants, but the question is whether he knows. She offers to buy the sandstone. He offers to give it to them. We watch the expressions on their faces and try to read these people. The segment is the vaguest of the three. I appreciated the arid situation while realizing it will drive some viewers nuts.

The final story is the most traditional. Set in a small town, it follows a recent law school graduate (Kristen Stewart) as she makes a four-hour commute from Billings for her new twice-weekly job teaching an evening class of educational law. At the local diner, the teacher catches the eye of a lonesome ranch hand (Lily Gladstone), who starts auditing the class. Introductions are made, leading in the direction of … what? We don't know, and the gender swap just makes the situation even more interesting.

Writer-director Reichardt opts to add brief epilogues that add nothing in particular to the stories. Certain Women isn't about resolutions. It's about how certain women interact, or try to, with certain others. Search for monolithic statements about men and women if you want, or just watch and listen to these particular individuals.

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