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The Reel Alternative: Underdeveloped ‘Certain Women’ Strives for Subtlety and Hyper-Realism


Photo credit: The Communicator Archives

Written by: Zachary D. ElickNovember 11, 2016

Quality Reviews Focused on Alternative Films Shown at Fort Wayne’s Cinema Center. A column by Zachary D. Elick.

Walking out of the Cinema Center after a screening of “Certain Women,” indie-filmmaker Kelly Richardt’s latest effort, I overheard an elderly women enthusiastically tell the theater attendant, “Now, that was a very fine film.” With satisfaction, the attendant remarked that she “must have really enjoyed it then,” to which the women responded, just as I walked out the door, “Well, I wouldn’t really say that I enjoyed it…”

I didn’t have to listen to the rest of their conversation to know what the women was likely getting at.

Despite a few moments of observational humor and a couple of good performances, the slow paced — at times, excruciatingly so — and sparse “Certain Women” can be a slog to get through.

Based on short stories by Maile Meloy, “Certain Women” is made up of three separate vignettes taking place in Montana, all with female protagonists.

In the first act, Laura (Laura Dern) is a lawyer burdened with an extremely disgruntled client, Fuller (Jared Harris), who was duped out of a large money settlement after a work-related injury. The act starts to become interesting when Fuller realizes that his case is hopeless, at least by traditional means. But the the film quickly moves on.

The second act centers on Gina (Michelle Williams), who is building her own home with her husband, Ryan (James Le Gros), and their daughter. A trip to see an elderly friend, Albert (Rene Auberjonois), to  ask about acquiring some sandstone piled in his yard, leaves Gina conflicted about the decisions she had made in life.

The last act is the most emotionally affecting section of “Certain Women.” It focuses on Jamie (newcomer Lily Gladstone), a lonely ranch hand attempting to make a connection with a visiting teacher from out of town, Beth (Kristen Stewart). Unfortunately, this sections is also plagued with some of the film’s worst dialogue and its most noticeable issues with pacing.

“Certain Women” is clearly trying to say something important about human interactions. Yet, its poor script doesn’t give the audience enough context to actually care about what is happening on screen. There are several themes running through the film, such as the many ways women have to subjugate themselves to men. If explored better, they would have been more poignant.

Richardt’s directing doesn’t help matters much either. The characters in “Certain Women” often linger in shots for uncomfortably long lengths of time, which only highlights the frustrating  bareness of the film’s narrative.

“Certain Women” is the latest in a growing list of art house movies that are low on character and plot development but rich in hyper-realism. For more examples,  see my recent reviews of the 2016 films “Little Men” or “Don’t Think Twice” at www. ipfwcommunicator.org.

Richardt, and other filmmakers like her, should be applauded for trying to capture something genuine about the human experience. But, by veering too far from the established modes of narrative storytelling, “Certain Women” seems more like an underdeveloped waste of potential than the subtle and beautiful triumph it is trying to be.