A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
A drama teacher once told me that great drama is about the most important day in the life of the protagonist. Even if it was a generalization designed to teach a student how to bring gravity to a performance, it’s often true, but not always. Great storytellers can make great drama from seemingly average days in their character’s lives, sometimes offering even more insight into the human condition by transcending the mundane than highlighting the abnormal. There are several “average days” in Kelly Reichardt’s sublime “Certain Women,” an adaptation of three short stories by Maile Meloy. Working with the most high-profile cast she has to date, Reichardt delivers a multi-faceted character study, a sketch of intersecting lives in a small Montana town. It is purposefully slow, a film meant to be lived in and considered carefully when it’s done. Almost none of it feels as “important” as my teacher explained and yet it is still great drama.
“Certain Women” opens with a train moving slowly through the heartland of Montana, honking its horn occasionally along the way. We will hear that train again, blaring its horn in the background of these characters’ lives, both connecting them in our subconscious and serving thematic purpose. Reichardt returns to images of life going past this mountain town—trains, freeways in the distance, a flowing river—to remind us of both the ordinary nature of these stories and to connect them to each other and even our lives.
The first of three barely interlocking stories opens with a lawyer named Laura Wells (Laura Dern) on her lunchtime affair with a married man named Ryan (James Le Gros). She returns to her office to find her most annoying client, a man named Fuller (Jared Harris), who won’t take her legal advice that he doesn’t have a disability case against his former employer because he took money from them after the accident. It turned out to not be nearly enough money but it derailed any future legal action. She takes him to a male colleague in a neighboring city, who tells him the exact same thing, but he listens this time. Reichardt is subtly laying thematic foundations about the ways in which people interact with each other—female attorneys and male clients, husbands and wives, teachers and students.
After Fuller does something drastic that serves as the only real “action” of “Certain Women,” we transition to the story of Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams), wife to Ryan, the man we met earlier getting dressed with Laura. The effect of that earlier scene is subtle but crucial because we bring baggage to this second story by virtue of the fact that we know that this isn’t a healthy marriage. It looks like everything is relatively fine, but Ryan is cheating. So when we see them working on a house they’re building from the ground up, we know the foundation is a little weak.