When the act of watching a movie is compared to watching paint dry, it’s not meant to be taken as a compliment unless you happen to like staring at that particular color of paint. Certain Women, the latest film from indie “auteur” Kelly Reichardt follows the path of previous films like Meek’s Cutoff where beautiful landscapes take the place of an interesting story or characters.
Based on short stories by Maile Meloy, the film is basically three separate stories set in the same general Northern American vicinity that’s never named but is clearly far enough out in the wilds to allow lots of shots of the environment.
The first segment involves Laura Dern as the small town lawyer of a somewhat deranged man named Fuller (Jared Harris), who got a head injury on the job and goes a little crazy when he learns his case has been bungled. So he breaks into the law firm and holds the night guard hostage.
The second segment stars Reichardt regular Michelle Williams as one half of a couple (with James LeGros) buying rocks for the house they’re building. (Seriously, I wish I were making that up, but that is literally the entire story.)
The final and longest segment stars Kristen Stewart as Elizabeth, a woman teaching law to an adult night class when she befriends a local Native American rancher (Lily Gladstone), who in turn takes a liking to her as they spend time together. We watch the latter working on her ranch, sitting in Stewart’s class mooning at her teacher, and then they go have food at a diner and talk… a lot… about nothing. Wash, rinse, repeat and never bother to resolve anything.
That’s right. Kelly Reichardt has finally made her Seinfeld-esque movie about nothing.
In some ways, Reichardt is a master of showing, not telling, but it starts to get tedious very quickly, especially during the second and third segments that don’t really have a story in which it’s worth investing your time. One segment ends unceremoniously before another one begins, and just when we return to Dern visiting her client in jail, hoping for some sort of satisfying resolution, we never get it. And yet, it still has a more interesting ending than the other two.
One starts to wonder whether when Reichardt sits down to start a new movie, she bothers thinking about things like character development or story arcs, or if she just shows up on a location and rolls film without knowing where anything is going to go.
Most of Reichardt’s cast approach the material expressing absolutely no emotion, which is particularly true in the ineffective and pointless segment featuring Williams, who once again is wasted by Reichardt. By comparison, Gladstone is quite a discovery and has real presence, but do we really need a five-minute shot of her driving her pick-up truck? Does that really add anything to her story arc?
Despite its title, the best performance comes from one of the few men in the film, Jared Harris, who really stands out by giving an unexpected performance while also helping to bring equally great things from Laura Dern. Because of that, the first segment may have worked well as a satisfying short film, even if you have to sit through almost an hour of the other segments before you return to it.
The only thing good that can be said about Reichardt’s film is that it’s beautifully shot by DP Christopher Blauvelt with an accompanying score by Jeff Grace that’s also quite nice. There’s a certain point when you can rent yourself a pick-up truck, put some mellow tunes on the radio as you drive through the American countryside, and it will give you the exact same effect.
However you slice it, Certain Women is just one big a waste of time. In a year full of so many powerful and memorable films, why even bother?
Certain Women just finished its run of film festivals at the New York Film Festival, and it will open in New York and L.A. on Friday, Oct. 14.