MIFF Review: Certain Women (USA, 2016) is a quiet, gentle piece of cinema

Proving to be the master of quiet filmmaking, Kelly Reichardt has established quite a name for herself within the independent cinematic industry. With slow-burning, patient films like Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, her newest picture follows the style of her preceding work. Certain Women, an adaptation of short stories by Maile Meloy, shows Reichardt provide contemplative and powerful observations on the lives of women.

Certain Women is unconventionally composed of a triptych of stories, loosely and subtly interwoven between three women living in Montana. The threads of these separate relations appear to cross paths through the faintest of subtleties, however Reichardt more-so connects these women through underlying themes and subtext.

The first opens with Laura Dern, a lawyer whose day revolves around a bothersome and unstable client (Jared Harris) while the second story shows a couple (Michelle Williams and James Le Gros) in the process of building a house, and attempt to convince an old man to sell them a pile of sandstone. The third story however, may be the most profound and emotionally reflective story of the three, as lonely farmhand, Jaime (Lily Gladstone), finds herself in an adult education class for school law and seeks out companionship with the teacher (Kristen Stewart).

The world constructed in Certain Women is one of a large atmosphere with simple stories. The segments themselves are not equal in their significance but each rely on the emotional revelation and connections established in the story prior. The third story centers on the relationship of a new connection, linking with the emotional turmoil of a struggling marriage within the second story, as the husband has an affair with the lawyer in the first tale. What this does is provide a reflection on life. It’s a reminder life is slow-moving and principally established by the little moments: the minor disappointments and the small achievements.

To support the quiet and patient narrative, the acting of these four women felt raw, emotional and authentic. However, it was Gladstone who outshone every other big name in the film. With little dialogue, her restrained acting spoke volumes, and her performance was a perfect combination of innocence and yearning.

Besides a few short sequences, Reichardt only uses diegetic sound. There is no score or soundtrack to assist the film’s progression – however, this purely adds dimension to the atmosphere. The ubiquitous natural sounds of the wisping wind, car tires slowly rolling over gravel, a streaming creek or the rumbling motor of a tractor, all portray a sense of realism and depth to each scene.

This film is certainly for a very specific audience. Some may dismiss the film as dull and repetitive, others may object and believe its extreme subtly alludes to a strength in its emotive power and stillness. However, there is no denying that Certain Women is a quiet, gentle piece of cinema. It proves great films don’t need loud cinematography and big names to succeed, but a simple narrative and raw characters can project profound brilliance and unique content.

Review score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Certain Women was screened as reviewed as part of Melbourne International Film Festival