Certain Women (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): A trio of haunting human dramas set in Montana

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Looking over a train passing by a vast, remote landscape, the main title sequence of “Certain Women” hauntingly sets the tone for three stories to be unfolded one by one in a rural area of Montana. While not all of its stories are satisfying, the movie works thanks to its restrained but sensitive storytelling approach as well as the solid performances from its main cast members, and it is often touching to watch small moments of human emotions glimpsed from its characters.

The first story is about a lawyer working in Livingston, Montana and her problematic client. While Laura (Laura Dern) has tried her best to persuade him of his hopeless legal situation, Fuller (Jared Harris) has stubbornly stuck to his misguided belief that he might receive another compensation for the work injury on his head which has gotten worse than before, so she comes to set up his meeting with another lawyer, who confirms to Fuller of what she has told him again and again during last several months.

However, Fuller remains undeterred while only exasperating Laura more than before, and Jarred Harris is alternatively maddening and pitiful as a desperate man helplessly struggling with his damaged state of mind which keeps pushing him into more anger and despair. Fuller eventually comes to attempt a drastic measure to Laura’s dismay, and Harris and his co-star Laura Dern have a quietly tense moment as their characters try to deal with his impossible situation.

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In the second story, we meet Gina (Michelle Williams) and her family. Gina and her husband Ryan (James LeGros) are planning to build a new house at a site outside Livingston, and she wants to buy a bunch of sandstone blocks belonging to an old man named Albert (René Auberjonois). While the movie does not tell us much about why those plain sandstone blocks are so particularly precious to her, Albert does not seem to mind Gina taking them away from him, though he shows some regret about what he could have done with them in the past. He is more interested in having a conversation with Gina and Ryan, and she is annoyed by this even though she is going to get what she wants in a way far easier than expected.

The second story is the weakest part of the movie, and Michelle Williams, who previously collaborated with the director/editor/adapted screenplay writer Kelly Reichardt in “Wendy and Lucy” (2008) and “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010), is under-utilized here due to her rather superficial character, but this part is not entirely without good elements. The barren sense of loneliness is palpable especially when the cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s camera looks around the remote surroundings of Albert’s house, and René Auberjonois is excellent as he gradually reveals his character’s longtime solitude.

The third story, which is the strongest part of the movie in contrast, introduces us to Jaime (Lily Gladstone), a young female ranch hand working in a farm located outside a small town named Belfry. As we watch her going through her daily routine at the farm, we cannot help but notice how isolated she is. When she is tending horses outside in the daytime, there is no one around her except her dog, and then we see her spending the nighttime alone with TV at her sleeping place.

During one night, Jamie stumbles upon a school law class at a local school, and that is how she comes to meet its new teacher Beth (Kristen Stewart), a young lawyer who drove from Livingston for the class. After the class is over, she takes Beth to a nearby diner, and they have a brief conversation at the diner before Beth drives back to Livingston.

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We observe how attentively Jamie listens to every word from Beth. She does not speak much during their conversation, but it is apparent that she is simply happy to be with someone who may make her life less monotonous than before. Already being tired of her job which demands her to make 8-hour round trip between Livingston and Belfry twice a week, Beth does not mind taking the kindness of a stranger, and that makes Jamie approach a little closer to Beth during their next encounter, which is accompanied with a brief moment of quiet tenderness between these two young women.

While Kristen Stewart, who has kept impressing us with a series of good performances during recent years, is effective in her role, Gladstone remains as the heart and soul of the third story, and she is particularly excellent during the most powerful moment in the movie. As the camera keeps focusing on her calm, wordless face for a while, she does not signify anything during that moment, but we can clearly feel her character’s emotional state thanks to what her beautifully understated performance has steadily built up along the story, and that is why her last scene is quite poignant.

“Certain Women” is based on three short stories from Maile Meloy’s collection “Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want.” Although I have not read them yet, I can tell you that the movie vividly evokes the sense of locations and people, and Reichardt and her talented performers give us intimate dramas to which we can relate via their universal human emotions. It is not perfect, but it is affecting on the whole none the less.

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