The cinematic minimalism practiced by writer/director Kelly Reichardt can be deceiving. Films like “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy” creep up on you slowly. . . sometimes a bit of time has to pass before they set up shop inside a viewer’s head and a movie’s little moments coalesce into an overall feeling.
“Certain Women” is based on three Maile Meloy short stories, all set in a small burg in the Pacific Northwest and each concentrating on a woman struggling for a degree of independence and recognition. The stories stand alone, but characters from one might pop up in a cameo role in another.
In the first, a lawyer (Laura Dern) is called to help negotiate with a client (Jared Harris) whose workman’s compensation case is going nowhere. Now the poor schlub has taken extreme measures. He’s armed himself and invaded the offices of his former employer, taking a security guard hostage. The local sheriff wants the lawyer to get him to surrender.
In the second story, a wife and mother (Michelle Williams) is pushing her foot-dragging husband (James Le Gros) to build a new family home on a few acres out in the woods. Much of the running time is devoted to her negotiations with a crusty old local (Rene Auberjonois) to acquire a pile of sandstone rocks that have been sitting in his rural front yard for at least 50 years.
In the third episode a loner stablehand (Lily Gladstone) becomes quietly obsessed with the new law school grad (Kristen Stewart) who weekly drives four hours each way to hold evening training sessions on education law for local public school teachers and administrators.
In the first two cases, the female protagonists must content with a certain disrespect from the men around her.
Dean’s lawyer, for instance, cannot convince her angry client that his case has hit a dead end. He will only accept the hopelessness of his situation when a male attorney is brought in to deliver the same bad news. A guy lawyer should have the final word, right?
Williams’ assertive wife finds her negotiations for the sandstone being subtlety undermined by her spouse’s passive-aggressive attitude. (We’ve already seen that her take-control approach may be alienating hubby. . . he’s having an affair with Dern’s character).
The third episode is more overtly romantic. Gladstone’s ranch worker engages in a clumsy but touching courtship of Stewart’s young lawyer, who’s so overworked and weary she doesn’t realize she’s an object of desire here. To her it’s just a vaguely puzzling acquaintance. And when the lawyer drops out of the teaching program, the cowgirl risks all — emotionally speaking — by driving across the state to track down this object of desire.
Little is reconciled in these tales. Big statements, firm conclusions and decisive outcomes are not in evidence.
Instead Reichardt and her players mine the little moments, events that may seem inconsequential but which reveal a great deal about the participants.
“Certain Women” scores feminist points, all right. But with the exception of the final segment, which is quietly heartbreaking, this is more an intellectual exercise than an emotional one.
Then again, that’s the view of a man. No doubt many women watching the film will nod in recognition at the frustrations and indignities these female characters suffer. For these viewers, the situations depicted may carry a powerful weight of recognition.