Certain Women should not be a feature-length film. It’s strange to be so down on a film when its primary problem is the format that it’s presented in, but Certain Women is exactly the kind of film that has pretensions toward unifying themes that are ultimately so contrived that the individual themes of its short narratives are overshadowed by the absence of any meaningful interconnectivity. In other words, this is a film comprised entirely of short subjects that neither relate in a literal sense or in a profoundly dramatic sense, making their juxtaposition pointless.
The film follows snippets of the lives of three women in rural Montana, each dealing with their relationship with womanhood and how their lives are affected by their location and social climate. Laura Dern plays an attorney whose misogynistic client takes his former co-worker hostage so that she has to talk him down. Michelle Williams portrays a woman looking to buy sandstone from an elderly neighbor, but is undermined by her husband’s well-meaning but ineffectual support and her teenage daughter’s ambivalence. Lily Gladstone is a lonely ranch hand who discovers a night class taught by an out-of-town lawyer (Kristen Stewart), whom she invites out to dinner after class each night in hopes of developing a relationship of some kind.
Each of these narratives is suitably compelling in their own right, and if they existed in a vacuum they would all be pretty great. Writer and director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy And Lucy, Night Moves) captures in each of these stories a sense of loneliness and isolation through slow, naturalistic dialogue and almost no musical score, and each of the short subjects draws a different relationship between the principal women and their environments. It’s a slow, methodical piece that is only accentuated by stellar performances across the board that simultaneously feel naturally lived-in and dramatically poignant.
However, because the film insists on being one cohesive feature with interweaving narratives, the film’s slowness doesn’t build toward anything and therefore has no payoff. Each of the three stories is allowed to exist in its own narrative space except for their epilogues, which would have been effective if kept in edited proximity to the story they were wrapping up, but are instead saved for a unified ending that never materializes anything meaningful in its unity. There’s no sense of climax or closure, which isn’t necessarily an awful thing for a realistic portrayal of the mundane hardships these women face, but the interconnection of these narratives implies a deeper meaning that either isn’t there or is a lot shallower than the film thinks.
If Certain Women were re-edited as three separate short films and distributed as such, I think my reception to them would have been much kinder. As it stands, though, this review serves as a warning to keep one’s expectations in check. There is no grander meaning to Certain Women; it’s only a series of meditative vignettes that are just fine individually, but when put together equal less than the sum of their parts.