Obnoxiously understated ‘Certain Women’ forgets to tell a story

Penn Harrison

There’s a place for minimalism, a time for subtlety and a moment for silence. But rarely has a film so blatantly overused all three that it forgot to tell a story. 

Writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women”  beautifully frames strong-willed female characters against a snowy Montana backdrop, but lacks enough substance to sustain an engaging story. Instead of finding extraordinary meaning in stories of ordinary people, Reichardt’s three vignettes prove extraordinarily ordinary. 

In the first and strongest vignette, small-town lawyer Laura (Laura Dern) tries to help Fuller (Jared Harris), a depressed construction worker, after he is denied workers’ compensation for an injury on the job. Unable to get money or reverse his mental and physical decline, Fuller suffers a mental breakdown and takes a security guard hostage in an office building. Cops send Laura to negotiate with him. Her tender, down to earth empathy tempers Fuller’s pathetic rage. The awkward tension, bleak humor and grounded realism evoke memories of the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo,” but Reichardt abandons this story at its dramatic peak, shifting the plot to a weaker one. 

A young couple (Michelle Williams and James Le Gros) camp in the woods on the site of their next house, where Gina (Williams) is determined to build an “authentic” house from the sandstone of an old school building. Her motivation for doing this is never made clear, but she forces Ryan (Le Gros) to help her pressure an elderly local to give up his collection of sandstone, all to the dismay of the couple’s jaded younger daughter. With no sympathetic characters or action, the vignette becomes an aimless collection of clumsy pauses and passive-aggressive dialogue. Reichardt insists on ending the vignette before action occurs. Her portrayal and Williams’ and Le Gros’ performances are realistic, but Reichardt never reveals why this was a story worth telling. 

In the final vignette, Kristen Stewart stars as Beth, a young law teacher who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a lonely Native American ranch hand. Their subdued dinner conversations may charm some, but what Reichardt intends to portray as mutual shyness comes across as thin writing. When Beth’s four-hour commute forces her to give up the class, Jamie drives through the night to see her one last time, an encounter that proves awkward at best.

Reichardt’s intentions are clear and noble: to tell small, authentic stories about ordinary people. Her characters are independent, self-sufficient women in a world of rural, snowy emptiness, but don’t do enough during the film to be memorable. The title, “Certain Women,” promises female empowerment, but Reichardt’s lack of substance squanders her film’s feminist aspirations. After two hours of pregnant pauses, passive characters and snapshots of small-town life, an optimistic viewer would expect the intimate vignettes to powerfully intersect. Instead, Reichardt’s finale revisits each with no further conclusion. 

Understatement and minimalism can be riveting when done right. Earlier this month, Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” evoked raw emotional power with subtlety. But “Loving” had a fully fleshed out plot with likable characters, dramatic tension and a clear narrative trajectory. Without story or drama, “Certain Women”’s understatement proves obnoxious. It evokes a lonely, bleak, dead-end life in rural America with occasional beauty, grace and style, but never answers a key question: why is emptiness an emotion worth evoking? 

Rating: 2.5/5