“Certain Women”, based on short stories by Maile Meloy, features three different vignettes with three different women. Characters from each vignette occasionally cross paths with others, but director Kelly Reichardt, who adapted the screenplay, mostly ties these tales together via the main characters’ similarly stifled emotions and lives they struggle to wrest joy and meaning from. You see that immediately in the first scene, where Laura (Laura Dern) and Ryan (James Legros) are currently in the midst of an illicit rendezvous, given the mid-afternoon motel location, as she rubs her socked foot against Ryan’s back. This act, however, exudes less passion than quiet pay-attention-to-me desperation. He doesn’t pay much attention. They talk about the color of her sweater. God, that’s so Reichardt.
Another movie might have employed this affair as an inciting incident, but it’s quickly brushed past as Ryan breaks their relationship off in barely so many words before Laura’s own narrative is essentially co-opted by a different male, Fuller (Jared Harris), a client who keeps showing up at Laura’s law firm. Nominally he yearns to sue for workplace injury, but just as much he is looking for someone to talk to, though he never really listens to what she has to say in return. Indeed, though she has repeatedly told him he can’t sue because he accepted a settlement, Fuller only takes this as a gospel upon hearing it from a male judge.
Eventually, Fuller returns to his old workplace and takes a hostage, and Laura is enlisted to try and talk him down. These moments are played less for tension, however, than drollness, like Laura is a mother forced to clean up an angry adult toddler’s mess. And the seeming confrontation ends limply, and this story intentionally ends without any real sense of who Laura is because she is forced for the duration of the episode to set herself aside, to keep everything she feels in, to give this guy a shoulder to cry on, which she does, nearly literally, in a scene as comical as it is sad when he breaks down sobbing in her car that is set to a Guy Clark song about usurping the sameness of things which you sense in Laura’s quiet weariness is what she so terribly yearns to do.
In the second story we return to Ryan, though the tale truly belongs to Gina (Michelle Williams), his wife. Ryan does not co-opt his spouse’s story, however, so much as exist outside of it, emblemized in the opening moments where she has a covert cigarette on a walk in the woods, and then walks in on Ryan sharing a joke with their daughter (Sara Rodier) that Gina doesn’t get. These moments demonstrate a fissure in this family, as does a simple if nevertheless striking image where Gina and Ryan sit vacantly in the front seat of their truck while their daughter sits in back, tuned out to her iPod.
Gina has apparently decided the solution to this family crisis is to symbolically rebuild their familial foundation by erecting a new family home in a pristine spot of wilderness. To do so, however, she wants to acquire a pile of sandstone that an old man they know, Albert (René Auberjonois), has sitting unused in his yard, and so Gina and Ryan stop by Albert’s for a folksy negotiation. This scene, in which the senile Albert can’t quite stay on topic, drifts from his ingrained attitude toward addressing the male more than the female to his lament that he and his brother intended to use that sandstone to build a deck. The latter never happened, so sure, Gina and Ryan can have it, but in the ensuing sequence where they come to pick the sandstone up, the old man watching from a window leaves you wondering if he’s heartbroken to see it go, heartbroken to see it go to a woman, or if he knows that it can’t fill the void like she hopes. It’s classic Reichardt Ambiguity, or maybe it’s just all three at once.
The ultimate passage is less abstruse, if even more minimalist, where an isolated rancher (Lily Gladstone) is so lonely she wanders one night into a class about school law, a topic which bears no meaning for her, just because it promises a little company. That company winds up being the instructor, Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart), a put out, stressed out lawyer from Livingston who makes the 4 hour trek, each way. After class they visit the local diner, where Beth orders food she never seems to finish while the rancher, who is never named, mostly just sits on the other side with a glass of water, replying to whatever question Beth absent-mindedly thinks to pose. This story is comprised of three classes and three meals, until Beth doesn’t show and the Rancher gets in her car with nary a word and drives to Livingston.
This is something like Big Sky neorealism, where Gladstone gives a humongous performance in the smallest of ways, simply allowing her shy manner, whether by smiles that come across as sad as polite, or a vocal delivery evoking someone who hasn’t been around anyone for long stretches of time, to pull you in. Stewart, meanwhile, is the perfect partner, not cold but so distracted that she remains oblivious to the romantic pull she has on her new sorta friend, even to the end, when suddenly the Rancher is there in the parking lot of her law firm.
This, like everything else, is a passage Reichardt handles with a wrenching undemonstrativeness. If it is impulsive, even passionate move, it plays more of muted innocence, like in the night before the Rancher tracks down Beth where she wanders the streets of Livingston, reminiscent of a big kid who has unexpectedly wound up at Disneyland. And when she does see Beth, a lifetime of not really having any words to say, which is what Gladstone’s entire performance delicately sculpts, comes to bear, and she doesn’t know how to communicate the way she feels. It’s not that Beth rejects her, because Stewart doesn’t even really let Beth reject her, just standing there more in early morning, confusedly squinting, uncaffeinated mystification more than anything. Gladstone lets the Rancher feel rejection anyway, like she expected it, and when she gets back in her truck to commence the long drive back all we are left with is Gladstone’s face.
Gladstone’s face becomes the biggest thing in the movie. With each successive story, the more Reichardt chips away at narrative conventions, until, by these last frames, all that’s really left are emotions splayed across one person’s face.