If we’re to believe one of the oldest gender stereotypes, when it comes to dealing with other people’s problems, men just want to solve them, while women prefer to listen and empathize. In this way, movies are extremely masculine, setting up conflicts that must be overcome by the hero within the span of two hours. Sure, perhaps those obstacles stem from internal issues—an inability to find one’s place, say, or a fear that you’ll never amount to anything—but what matters is defeating that external problem, which in theory will take care of everything else. If only life were really like that.
What’s remarkable about Certain Women is how writer-director Kelly Reichardt jettisons that conventional way of thinking about conflict and narrative. In a sterling career that has included the precise dramas Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, the filmmaker has let silence and ambiguity be her allies, allowing them to suggest the worlds of experience and feeling that go unexpressed by our fellow creatures. In Certain Women, one of her best films, nothing gets “solved” in the three stories she expertly dramatizes. And because that’s the case, they stay with us in a way that traditional stories don’t. She doesn’t want resolution—she wants us to listen and empathize.
Based on stories by Maile Meloy, Certain Women is divided into three chapters, each devoted to a different woman living in Montana. None of the chapters have particularly high stakes, except for the character at the center of each story. In the first, a small-town lawyer, Laura (Laura Dern), must cope with a troublesome client (Jared Harris) who’s convinced she’s not doing enough to help him win a lawsuit against his employer after he’s injured. (He’s incorrect, by the way: Because he agreed to a payment early, he waived the right to ask for more money later.) In the second, a wife and mother named Gina (Michelle Williams) travels with her husband (James Le Gros) to speak to an older man (René Auberjonois) who might sell them his excess sandstone for a dream house they’re building. And in the third, a rancher, Jamie (Lily Gladstone), decides to go into town one day, happening upon a nighttime class taught by an out-of-town lawyer, Beth (Kristen Stewart). Soon, the two strike up a friendship, their only connection this class that the lawyer doesn’t want to teach and the rancher isn’t even signed up for.
Each chapter is more or less autonomous, and while there is subtle, almost invisible connective tissue between the sections, Certain Women is not a film in which random coincidences are meant to evoke life’s strange unpredictability. Nothing in Reichardt’s movie is so contrived, the filmmaker preferring to explain little and to leave everything slightly loose, especially each chapter’s ending.
Because the characters’ quests are so seemingly minor, these women go about their business with a minimum of fuss, which allows us only a brief glimpse into their lives. And because Reichardt doesn’t strain to flesh out these women, we get hints, not definitive clues, into their personality. Gina’s daughter and husband both act very wary around her—as if gingerly walking on thin ice—but why? Laura is exasperated by her client, and yet she keeps helping him—even when he puts her in a horrible bind. And Jamie’s affection for this lawyer might be interpreted as romantic—but is it? Reichardt isn’t being willfully opaque. Rather, she’s observing how often in stories (and in life) we seek to connect the dots, hoping to bring a greater meaning to events we witness. Certain Women resists that instinct and, even better, suggests that this is actually how living works. Every day, we are surrounded by incidents and actions that are unknowable, even to ourselves.
Yet having said that, it’s impossible not to draw conclusions from the stories Reichardt has crafted with such loving care. Even the film’s title has potentially multiple meanings. Does that adjective “certain” suggest that these are confident women, randomly selected women, or the kinds of assertive women that uptight, unenlightened men would scorn? (“You know how certain women are …”)
Ultimately, I think Reichardt is asking viewers to consider the secret lives of women—the sides of themselves they don’t show the outside world. It’s telling that Laura, Gina, and Jamie are mostly isolated figures. But she doesn’t turn them into martyrs: They make their own decisions, and they own the consequences of those actions. When Gina interacts with Auberjonois’s elderly man, who appears to be suffering from dementia or memory loss, about the sandstone, we sense they share a history, but we don’t know the details—and we aren’t sure if his reticence is based on his condition or something else. As Jamie and Beth develop a friendship, we observe two very different worlds colliding: that of a hearty rancher and that of an edgy young lawyer desperately trying to make extra money to pay off student loans. As for Laura, an unexpected life-or-death encounter is both terrifying and speaks to a deeper feeling of being disrespected because she’s a woman.
But those are all guesses. You may see Certain Women and have vastly different takeaways. The uncertainty with which these characters view their own lives is as accurate as the perspective we bring to them—which is to say, pretty limited. And that’s Reichardt’s point. She doesn’t want us to judge or assign meaning; she wants us to simply experience what her characters experience. Certain Women is a profoundly humane film, inviting us to live inside it for a while, without judgment. And the performances match Reichardt’s approach, generating plenty of sympathy while leaving much unsaid. Dern is believably exhausted but unfailingly loyal as a put-upon lawyer. Williams, a Reichardt regular, is wonderfully remote as Gina, giving off an air of warmth that is notable for its lack of actual heat. And Gladstone is the revelation, her character’s kind, open face perhaps a mask concealing loneliness and disappointment. (Or, maybe she just has that sweet a temperament.)
For characters we don’t learn much about, I quickly came to love these people—not in spite of the fact that I didn’t know a lot about them but because of that. Certain Women is a master class in humility, a reminder not to make assumptions about others and to simply let them be who they are. Reichardt populates her film with beautiful mysteries. Who are we to think that we can solve them?
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film, Grierson & Leitch. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site griersonleitch.com.