Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women came out in the United States on October 14th and we, at Voicing Realities, were lucky enough to attend a screening of the film at one of BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn, NY, followed by a special Q&A with actress Michelle Williams. The drama is based off Maile Melloy’s collection of short stories entitled Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It.
If you wonder what the storyline entails, the title of the film is pretty straightforward. However, when asked about its origin, Michelle Williams did not have a clue. Certain Women is all about interpretation, as we will discuss later on. If you need more than just a couple of words, the film follows four women whose lives are connected by the thinnest thread you could possibly think of. Michelle Williams actually mentioned that the three stories had not been filmed at the same time and that she had not crossed path with either Laura Dern or Kristen Stewart. This is how fine the thread was. These four women live a rather quiet life in a small town in Montana, which was a delight for the eyes.
The film opens on a moving train but the long-lasting scene felt almost motionless. Michelle Williams, who plays Gina Lewis, a standoffish character moving to Montana with her husband and daughter, expressed the idea of settlers from somewhere else looking for a new American dream. They try to capitalize on authenticity and naturalness, eager for anything native such as sandstones in this case. The relationships between the characters seem oddly off as we have no idea what caused the rift. However, the actress pointed out that Kelly Reichardt chose not to dwell on backstories, which made the film all the more intriguing. Although the audience obviously wonders why the family pretends to be one when all three members have nothing to say to each other, what happened just does not matter. But why would they go to all that trouble of finding native sandstones to build a house in the middle of nowhere, if they would all rather be anywhere else? Michelle Williams replied that not going forward with the process of building the house would be evidence that they had nothing to build. And neither Gina or her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) were ready to admit such a thing… which is too often the case. We could even take the interpretation further and draw an allegory between Gina’s stony facette and her avidity for a stone-built house.
Michelle Williams addressed the idea of being unhappy and stuck as she spoke about Kelly Reichardt’s story behind the film. She was inspired by a friend who takes care of everything in her household but whose condition is dismissed by relatives because her husband is “such a great guy!”. Thus, she gets stuck and feels miserable in an environment where her overachieving daily life is unappreciated. Some would rightly argue that, in the film, men were depicted in the worst possible ways. However, it did not feel like gender played such an obvious role in that feeling of being stuck in an unhappy life. It was definitely a recurrent topic in the three stories but it seemed like these women’s demons were not a man’s responsibility.
Loneliness also stood out as a one of the film’s themes for all four women but Kelly Reichardt strongly disagreed, except maybe for the only character in a relationship, i.e. Michelle Williams. Now that is an interesting debate to have. Loneliness, silence, exhaustion and monotony came across as being the most obvious features of the film. Laura Dern’s character Laura Wells goes through life without any real passion for her job or her clients. Kristen Stewart’s character Beth Travis went to law school to escape her family’s curse of unchallenging jobs but has no real attachment to her current one and her social interactions are both awkward and limited. Lily Gladstone’s character Jamie was by far the most fascinating; her story could not possibly leave anyone unmoved. She works on her own as a farmer and her days are dreadfully repetitive (Phil from Groundhog Day would know a lot about that). The company of her animals certainly makes a difference but Jamie’s obvious disappointment when the object of her affection rejects her puts her solitude back into perspective. Lassitude and resignation appear to be a mutual feeling shared by all four women in different ways.
Besides the themes of the film and how one interprets them, what struck me as a viewer was the poetry that went into the filming decisions. Whether it was the noises, the score, the shots, the angles, the scenery, everything – as well as the screenplay – fell into place. The characters and their stories were mundane yet compelling, and it was also the case with the sound and visual aspects. Humor was thrown in at the right times, the pathos was measured and the performances were flawless, with a special mention to the brilliant Lily Gladstone.
Whether or not Certain Women was a feminist attempt to depict the reality of women who feel stuck in small towns, unhappy relationships or unsatisfactory jobs, it undoubtedly succeeded to encourage women to take matters into their own hands – or so I believe the message to be. However, the bitterness towards men, the weirdness of relationships, the awkwardness of dialogues, the stillness of certain sequences and the sharpness of the ending may leave the audience with a feeling of frustration and disappointment.