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BFI London Film Festival: Certain Women – Review

by Jamie Garwood 

In the last ten or so years of reviewing films and witnessing the beginning of genuine brilliant careers and attending film festivals around the country, you get to see films from all walks of life, that gestate somewhere and manifest into a whole project that appears in your home city. It is a privilege to witness them when they come to fruition.

And yet you sometimes search for the roses amongst the odour. You always miss the boat on certain auteurs or writer-directors who are swooned over by peers and critics of the current age, and yet you miss their coming out party. You try to second guess yourself and wonder maybe it is your point of view or background that is not doing justice to the film, and sometimes it just cannot be helped.

certain-women

Certain Women, is that sort of film. Kelly Reichardt, is rightly acclaimed as a light for female directors in the still male dominated world of popular cinema from her feminist western Meek’s Cutoff to her fable Wendy and Lucy. Reichardt comes from a less heard voice of middle America, telling stories rarely seen and sometimes pushed to the boundaries of social documentary.

Reichardt has also hit upon a budding relationship with Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain) as her muse of sorts. This film is based upon the short stories of Maile Meloy who herself is from Montana, where the film is set.

The palette of the film is stark and grey, the tone of the film is ponderous and plodding. From the start of the film with a long cargo, freight train coming from the east to the west – establishing the new settlers coming out west perhaps – the shot goes on for as long as the cast and early production members are listed. We then cut to a clandestine affair taking place between lawyer, Laura Wells (Laura Dern) and Ryan Lewis (James Le Gros). The set up looks clandestine due to the lack of discussion between the two and his abrupt departure.

We follow Laura as she deals with an injury lawsuit client Fuller (Jared Harris) who took an early pay-off and thus denied himself a big pay day in court. His own shortcomings come to a head when he takes a security guard hostage when seeking evidence of his being screwed by the system, this belief becomes fact when Laura recites to the illiterate Fuller her statement to the corporation she was meant to be fighting.

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From his arrest, we cut to Gina Lewis (Williams) who is married to Ryan, the guy we saw having an affair earlier. Gina has aspirations of building a house with sandstone and attempts to take some from an elderly man who lives on his own, there is tension between Gina and Ryan which serves as reason
for his affair.

Then we cut to a horse handler, Jamie (Lily Gladstone) who on an evening drive goes into a night class where people are. There she meets the teacher Beth (Kristen Stewart) who gives the class as extra income despite the 8 hour round trip to Belfry from Livingstone.

Jamie seeks solace from her loneliness by listening to Beth’s classes and their brief discussions in a diner before her long journey home. Beth stops coming to the classes due to the arduous journeys prompting Jamie driving to Livingstone to see her one more time.

That is the synopsis as best I can describe, not a lot else happens throughout the film, with the ponderous framing and narrative taking shape as I describe it. There is not a lot of incident and a lot of plot points are not resolved or concluded; Gina does not learn about Ryan’s affair, Laura is forgiven by Fuller for her shortcomings and the film ends with Jamie back in the stables with her horses.

To be cruel you could call this film boring, having seen versions of slow cinema, it felt stale that with a cast of this much talent there was not a lot asked of them in terms of character development. However, the film is an attempt to comment on the alienation and loneliness felt by people in the less populated states of America, where you work to live and live to work. Yet you hoped for more of an emotional impact, however, this perhaps Reichardt’s modus operandi, she wants you to see how other people live in poverty.
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The role of farm hand Jamie, is beautifully played by Lily Gladstone who does the most with what she is given, gaining the most emotional resonance when she departs Beth and Livingstone, welling up as she drives away from what she felt was a genuine connection with somebody else.

It is those sort of connections that were lacking throughout the film that was reaching for contemplation but left this reviewer frustrated. Overall a shame as it does not do justice to the beautiful landscape photography captured by Christopher Blauvelt (The Bling Ring).


Certain Women will be released in the USA by IFC Films on October 14th.

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