“Certain Women,” the fourth film from director Kelly Reichardt, opens on simple image of a train track with a train off in the distance. The train comes closer and closer to the viewer as the credits roll and it is well into two minutes before the main film gets started.
The plot is constructed around three vignettes, the first about a lawyer named Laura whose client causes a hostage situation, much like the film “John Q,” a married couple, Gina and Ryan, and their child who are building the wife’s dream house, and a lonely farm hand, Jamie, who falls for Beth, a lawyer teaching an adult education class in her small town. The segments are loosely connected in that they all take place in Montana and all feature female protagonists, but other than that, little is shared, plot-wise, between them. While “Certain Women” isn’t Reichardt’s most ambitious film (“Meek’s Cutoff” would probably take the cake for that), it is not without its own ambitions.
The film is understated, and, much like its protagonists, simply exists. Shot beautifully by Christopher Blauvelt (whose previous credits include the beautifully shot “The Bling Ring” and “Where the Wild Things Are”), there are many scenes with no dialogue, allowing the film to breath and permeate in the eyes of the viewer. The landscapes surrounding these women are breathtaking and make for a perfect backdrop for this deeply personal film. We live with these women for the short portions we are allowed into their lives, and we feel their struggles and their issues. Whether it’s Laura dealing with a gunman, Gina with building a house, or Jamie with her loneliness, there is something for everyone to connect to here.
It is impossible to make a film about women and not have it viewed under a feminist lense, and while “Certain Women” never makes it obvert, there are little moments in each segment that show the male gaze and misogyny in the everyday lives of these women. Laura, the lawyer, is the only one to vocalize it, saying when her client accepts the word of a male lawyer over hers despite them saying the same thing. “It’d be so lovely to think that if I were a man and I could explain a law and people would listen and say ‘Ok’. Oh, that would be so restful.”
That’s about as obvious as the feminist nature gets in the film, but the interrupting man in Beth’s class and the man who only looks at Gina’s husband while they both talk to him reveal the little annoyances women deal with every day. The film never makes it all about that, but it’s always there, lurking in the background, as it so often is in real women’s lives. That’s the brilliance at work in most of Reichardt’s films. There’s always something there, just below the surface, waiting to strike when you’d least expect it.