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Certain Women: My take on the movie starring Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern and Michelle Williams

I set off today for the ArcLight in Hollywood, intending to see a self-curated double feature of American Pastoral and Certain Women. I was sitting in the theater, alone, at about a minute to American Pastoral’s 11:20am showtime when the ArcLight usher approached me, apologizing that the theater was having projection problems. Would I like to see something else instead? I swapped my ticket for the next available showing of Certain Women, and happily accepted the comp ticket I could use any other time. At $16.25 a crack, a free ticket is nothing to turn ones’ nose up at! Thanks @ArclightCinemas Hollywood!

Just as well it turned out that way. I don’t think I could have sat through two 2 hour movies. To be fair, Certain Women is 1 hour, 47 minutes while American Pastoral clocks in at 2 hours, 6 minutes.

I’d heard Certain Women was slow, and it was, but luxuriously so. I enjoy that, a film that takes its time, setting up and reveling in its surroundings. Director Kelly Reichardt has a strong sense of how place impacts her characters and the audience in this character study. Right from the start, watching a train chug its way across the flat expanse of land, the snow-covered mountains framed in the distance, the camera work telegraphed the fact that life in wintry Montana, the cold so bitter looking it almost seeped into my seat, was a gritty, sometimes hard thing. The three stories, interwoven by the slimmest of threads, were going to be gritty, sometimes hard stories. 

While they were women’s stories in so far as women were the central figures, they weren’t of the usual women’s story ilk. They weren’t concerned with male female relationships, family, sex, or romance, at least not in any usual way.

Laura Dern’s tale starts it off with her lover (James LeGros) pulling on long johns and leaving at the end of a lunchtime liason, the train we saw heading across the flats, visible through the apartment window. That allusion to sex, Dern’s relationship with her lover has nothing to do with her story. Sex, romance, her relationship are a side note, a part of her life but not all encompassing. Her life with this man, her emotional choices in their relationship, is not her story. Her story is wrapped up in her life as a lawyer in Montana where her client has to accept the fact that the law can’t help him win his disability case against a negligent employer. Her client Jared Harris (Mad Men) is the real man in her life, emotional, bereft, unhinged, pleading while Dern is cool, calm, lawyerly. 

Michelle William’s story deals with negotiating a cache of sandstone from an elderly neighbor to build her dream house. Determined, getting the stone for the house is Gina’s top priority, while she brushes a bristling relationship with her daughter to the side. She asks her husband —the cheater we saw earlier with Dern—to speak with Albert about the stones but ultimately Williams does most of what little talking there is. Albert is elderly, not quite all there mentally, Williams wonders if he understands the negotiations but proceeds anyway. When Albert compliments her to her husband, telling him what a good worker she is, he responds with a laugh “She’s the boss’’ but it’s not the usual married joke. She is the boss, in control. Even if achieving that means she has to ignore the actual ‘life’ she’ll live within the house. Of all the women in this trio, Williams character seems like a fish out of water, her chic running garb, thin layers of high tech fabric designed to keep out the cold, her model-like skinniness mark her as an outsider, a city girl in the country, revealing her otherness in a world where most of the characters seem so solid, where layers and layers of padded fabric keep the weather, and the world at bay. 

Kristen Stewart’s story is most changed from Meloy’s Travis, B. about a young lawyer (Stewart as Beth Travis) teaching a night class and a ranch hand who develops a crush on her. In the short story, the ranch hand is a man, but Reichardt replaces the him with a her. 

The her is newcomer Lily Gladstone whose large, luminous eyes, and Mona Lisa smile betray her feelings. Watching Jamie (Gladstone) take care of the horses at the snow-swept ranch, plodding around the barn in heavy boots and fifty pounds of outerwear, doing the same thing day after day, talking to no one, it’s easy to see why she would respond to Kristen Stewart’s strange young lawyer who signed up by accident to teach a class a four hour drive away from her home. Where Williams is dressed in trendy running gear, Stewart’s character dresses in ill-fitting castoffs, dowdy mom jeans from the 80’s, outdated running shoes, items her once impoverished character might have picked up at a thrift store. Because she lingers after class, Beth turns to the ranch hand for help. When she asks Jamie where she can get something to eat, Gladstone doesn’t tell her, she shows her, joining her in the booth. Two very different women, on the surface sharing time together, snippets of their life stories, but in reality just in the same place at the same time. Those missed signals, mixed signals, become a sad statement about how we can mistake convenience for connection. 

That sense of misunderstanding is the real thread that ties Reichardt’s rendition of Meloy’s stories together. We leave all three women sensing their unease about how they’ve navigated their situations, doubting their own responses. Lacking the road map, the clearly defined paths of men working their way forward in the world, the need to achieve their goals respected and understood, here are three women who plod forward, clumsily at times, unsure of their footing, but who move along, aware of the unintended consequences of their behavior but going ahead all the same.

The end product is fashioned primarily by Reichart who wrote, directed and edited the film. The cinematography from Christopher Blauvet did nothing to romanticize the setting—deliberately, I assume, per Reichardt’s vision—painting the small town world of the Montana location with a cold, desolate swathe and I left the theater feeling an overpowering gratitude for Los Angeles’ warm days where loneliness and loss is a little harder to see under the glare of the California sun.