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Guest Review: Montana’s Gladstone shines in “Certain Women”

Picture screened at Montana Film Festival, opens across country on Oct. 14

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Unconventional narrative, solid performances from a talented cast and the Montana landscape give Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women an unexpected, if somewhat exasperating, charm.

Briana Wipf
By Briana Wipf

I say exasperating because the film defies the expected narrative form, weaving three women’s tangentially related stories, all three stories held together by the backdrop and the shared experiences of the characters. Like Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway – two characters who never meet and who ostensibly have nothing to do with each other but who, the reader learns, are inextricably linked by their shared sensibilities and perspectives – the characters of Certain Women move in and out of each other’s lives without knowing it.

There is Laura (Laura Dern) the Livingston lawyer trying to convince her client, Fuller (Jared Harris), that he is unable to sue the contractor he worked for when he experienced an on-the-job injury. After finally being convinced he has no case because he previously accepted a small settlement, Fuller turns to Laura for emotional support that she reluctantly gives.

Lily Gladstone of Missoula looks off screen in a shot taken from 'Certain Women'
Lily Gladstone of Missoula looks off screen in a shot taken from ‘Certain Women’

Then there is Gina (Michelle Williams, who was born in Kalispell) who, along with her husband Ryan (James Le Gros), are building a house in the country. Gina wants the house to look “authentic” so she and Ryan set out to persuade an old landowner to sell a pile of stone to them for the home.

Finally, there is the Rancher (played beautifully by Lily Gladstone), who finds a kindred spirit in Beth, played by Kristen Stewart. Beth is a new lawyer who drives four hours both ways from Livingston to Belfry twice a week to teach a class on education law. Having seen other people walking into the local school one evening, the Rancher wanders into Beth’s class, and the two begin an after-class ritual of having dinner at the local truck stop, until Beth abruptly quits her post.

The film premiered at the Sundance Film festival earlier this year and is scheduled for general release Oct. 14, but was screened at the second annual Montana Film Festival this weekend in Missoula.

Gladstone attended the film festival for a talk-back after the showing. While there, she praised Reichardt’s respect of her actors’ ability – she lets them do what they’re good at, Gladstone said.

The characters of Certain Women are blessedly ordinary and their lives are mundane, but the film itself is anything but boring. Reichardt, who adapted her script from a set of short stories by Maile Meloy, finds the humanity, maybe even the extraordinary, in her characters’ everyday lives (also similarly to Woolf).

Gladstone, by the way, is a Montana actor who currently lives in Missoula and spent much of her childhood on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. A Native American, she lends accurate and appropriate diversity to a film set in Montana. She performs the Rancher with nuance and sensitivity that is both relatable and heartbreaking in its sincerity, especially during an uncomfortably long shot of her driving through Livingston toward the highway. Her performance is the strongest in a film of strong performances.

The film was shot during a Montana autumn, and the landscape of the southern portion of the state provides the perfect backdrop to the stories that take place there. The audience sees the cold, dry landscape as it goes to sleep for the winter, goes on long road trips with the characters, and experiences the quiet interaction between nature and humans. Watching the Rancher open the door to the horse barn each day, the earth covered in snow one day and windswept the next, reminds the viewer that, despite the cold weather, the world is alive and always changing. That change, however, happens almost passively, mirroring the natural ebbs and flows in the everyday lives of the film’s subjects.

Michelle Williams in 'Certain Women'
Michelle Williams in ‘Certain Women’

Certain Women is not without its flaws, however. Some of the dialogue is stilted and cliché, and continuity issues were distracting (this humble reviewer, by the way, normally does not notice continuity issues).

Its depiction of Native American dancers early on is an uncomfortable moment. As Laura wanders through a shopping mall, she comes across a group of Native American singers and dancers in full regalia (a group from the Fort Peck Reservation, according to the film’s credits). Diversity in film is a great thing, but the dancers’ appearance comes off as a forced attempt to include a glimpse of Native American culture, especially since the appearance is given no context and is not discussed.

Reichardt’s film, however, is worth a watch. Don’t expect a conventional storytelling strategy or a conventional ending, but that’s one of the reasons why Certain Women works so well. It refuses to conform to expectations (and don’t even think about calling it a “chick flick,” because it isn’t) and demands a thoughtful, attentive viewer. If only all films did that.

Certain Women is rated R for language and has a run time of 107 minutes.

Briana Wipf is a graduate student and occasional journalist. A Cut Bank native, she lives in Missoula with her dog, Bob, and spends a lot of time reading and looking for a parking space on the University of Montana campus. She also periodically writes guest posts for Big Sky State Buzz. 

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