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Courtesy of IFC Films

December 2, 2016

Certain Women: Tender Stories Told with Restrained Patience

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The episodic structure of Certain Women falls closer on the spectrum of ensemble pieces to the dark, flaccid mirth of a film like Weiner Dog from earlier this year rather than the rapturous display of interconnectedness of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. However, this is not to say that Certain Women is a bad film. Rather, it is a film composed of three distinct parts — all whose plots intersect in very minor, trivial ways within the same state of Montana — that inherits a problem endemic to “multiple storylines” of this sort: some of the storylines are just much more interesting than others.

The film commences with what is probably the weakest of the film’s three stories. A lawyer in Livingston, Montana, performed sufficiently by Laura Dern, is dealing with a disgruntled client attempting to sue his former employer, who later returns to his former workplace and holds a security guard there hostage. Perhaps if this section were located at the back of the story, we would have been better acclimatized to the nuances of the film’s tone. However, I still maintain that this story, irrespective of its chronological location, is one that uncomfortably and unsuccessfully strains for Coen-esque tragicomedy. Instead, the extremity of its situation causes us to regard our disgruntled client with a tone of condescension absent from the Coen’s sympathetic humor. This story in particular reminds me so much of a similar scene in Todd Solondz’s Weiner Dog, released earlier this year, whose discomforting tone also didn’t affect me the way it should’ve.

However, the film improves significantly once it moves to the second of its three stories. A married couple and their young teenager daughter are building their new home from the ground-up and are camping on their empty lot while their house is constructed. Their teenage daughter comes off as a bit of a brat, while the parents bicker over their parenting. The parents later visit the home of an elderly man to persuade him to sell them the sandstone on his property, which he, to their surprise, reluctantly offers to them for free. Maintaining the hypnotic editing rhythm of the previous episode, which persists throughout the entire film, this second story additionally features some elegiac, yet restrained cinematography. It is here that the editing choice to shoot in the vibrant coarseness of 16mm pays the most dividends. Featuring a refined performance by Michelle Williams as the mother, director Kelly Reichardt extracts from this simple, mundane plot lifted straight from the everyday a patient representation of the fascinating dynamic between genders and generations, ultimately commentating on the passage of time – the cyclicality of construction and destruction.

The film’s final episode, balanced with careful precision by the organic performances of Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone, excels as a stunning portrayal of the enigmatic affection, or lack thereof, which underpins even the most fleeting of friendships. Stewart plays a young lawyer teaching a night class on education law at the nearest community college to Gladstone’s character, a ranch hand living in solitary winter isolation, tending to horses in a farm right next to the town Belfry. The ranch hand drops in on the first night class despite not being enrolled, and quickly forms a friendship with Stewart’s character after they both go to the diner for a late dinner right after class. As a portrait of beguiling loneliness, conveyed by Reichardt’s stylistic austerity, and the attempt to placate such a feeling via a fleeting friendship, this episode sits perfectly within its entitled run-time, and probably is the strongest out of the three that constitute Certain Women. It encapsulates a brief experience that one character obviously found intimate and important, while the other likely saw it as a temporary acquaintanceship born of convenience. As far as restrained representations that attempt to capture the nuances of intimate, platonic friendships between two people go, this part of Certain Women falls proudly close to the quietly-affecting brilliance of Lost in Translation. The sincerity of its tone, the nuance of its social commentary and the restraint of its aesthetic ensures that this perhaps would have been among the best short films this year, if it were intended as a short.

But the issue is, the film is ultimately the sum of its parts, even if some of those parts don’t contribute as much as others. Indeed, the film’s closing moments, which briefly revisit each narrative thread to provide a brief epilogue, confirmed my general indifference to the first narrative relative to the second two. And while the three stories cohere and complement each other sufficiently in terms of style and substance as portraits of three Montana women, there’s a lot that the complete package leaves desiring. But don’t be discouraged: Certain Women is no doubt among the stronger films to emerge this year, offering some tender stories framing humans against the Montana landscape so as to ruminate on the passage of time, the fleetingness of human relation, and our fundamental solitude.

Lorenzo Benitez is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at llb224@cornell.edu. 

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