From the moment Certain Women opens its lens on the dividing wall of a dusty motel room, you feel as though you’re watching something torn from another time. And yet, the conflict at hand is a perennial one: the opening scene leads us through the silent aftermath of the sort of extra-marital ordeal that motels have always signified on the big screen, before calmly bleeding out into the first of its three independent stories. All the while, you’re steeped in the kind of stunned comfort you usually enjoy when first exploring an esteemed classic you’ve been saving for a rainy day.
Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography contributes heavily to the flavor of 1970s screen drama that emanates from Certain Women’s every shot, beckoning us back to the dawn of Vilmos Zsigmond through a fuzzy brown wormhole. But it is damn near miraculous how director Kelly Reichardt uses Blauvelt’s colors, her assortment of actors, and the very fabrics of time and space to so effectively recreate the recipe of an age that lives with the stature of legend.
Though it is appropriate to hearken back to an era of cinematic reinvention for a movie with as progressive a motive as the articulation of modern feminism, it’s still jostling—and rewardingly so—to see attorney Laura Wells (Laura Dern) malign her clientele for raising eyebrows at the same advice they’d accept without a shrug from a male lawyer. Keep in mind: all of this is filtered through the aesthetic of an artistic chapter that was, for all its revolution, a veritable boys’ club.
The weight of such normalized sexism is a carrying theme through the first two of Certain Women’s three stories. The first story tosses Laura into a hostage crisis instigated by a crusty and unbalanced client (Jared Harris), all in the name of conducting a conversation on the disarmament of the professional woman. Only a small but significant thread connects this and the following chapter, which homes in instead on female demonization by way of a series of conversations waged between an aspiring homeowner and frustrated parent (Michelle Williams) and her husband and colleague (George Rowles).
The final and most engrossing chapter deviates just a bit, working with a different sort of emotional head-to-head, this time between two women: attorney and part-time teacher Beth (Kristen Stewart), a loner by virtue of geography, and farmhand Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a loner by virtue of internal makeup. Gender remains on Reichardt’s mind in this chapter, though she shifts exploration of her women’s conflicts from the world outside of womanhood to that within.
What results, thanks to a good sum of confidence in her audience’s ability to complement the story onscreen with the gender-swapped equivalent peppering the annals of pop culture tradition, is a vignette you’ll wish you could spend an entire feature with. One just as biting and even more empathetic than its predecessors, and a stage for the two best performances in the film. Reichardt derives a symphony from the silent stares shared by a jaggedly uncomfortable Stewart and a self-swallowing Gladstone, whose deficit of prior screen credits is astounding considering how much she manages to mine out of wordless grimaces.
The valor in Gladstone’s silence is quintessential of Reichardt’s larger operations. The director wrangles all sensory fibers at her disposal to imbue Certain Women’s every moment with mood—every passing moment howls a smoky, velvet richness that disguises the incantations of Reichardt’s eagerly modern anthology as cautionary tales espoused from a would-be wiser time. With so much on its mind, it’s this devotion to mood that keeps Certain Women as satisfyingly visceral as it is excitingly cerebral, and as flavorfully classical as it is tastefully new. Really, Certain Women doesn’t leave you wanting for much… except more of the same.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 burritos.
Images: IFC Films
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.