This year's New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center has proved a remarkable showcase for women in film. The latest from cult cirector Kelly Reichardt ("Meek's Cutoff," "Night Moves") sets in motion three vignettes, only casually linked, about a trio of women who are up against it in differing ways. It's uncertain what they're doing in the same film, except for the fact that their stories (drawn from the collection "Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It" by Maile Meloy) are shot against the majestic backdrop of Montana's mountains and big skies in gorgeous 16mm. Perhaps the three are connected as well by their aloneness (though one is a wife and mother), which is underscored by the vastness of the terrain, and a common struggle to find, if not happiness, exactly, then a viable way forward in challenging circumstances.
The excellent Laura Dern as a harried lawyer could be the poster girl for today's chronically overextended woman. Film opens among the rumpled sheets of her noon tryst with a man (James Le Gros) who's later revealed to be married. Back at work, Dern's struggling to cope with an injured client (Jared Harris) who's gone off the rails, after getting screwed by his worker's compensation claim. She'll later become entrapped in his escalating desperation.
Gina (Reichardt regular Michelle Williams) is the wife, we learn, of Laura Dern's sack mate - and in his brief screen moments Le Gros conveys to perfection a hunky male who knows he's catnip to women. His wife seems to have channeled her libido into building their new home - maybe one reason he channels his elsewhere. Her anger at him simmers beneath the surface. Further tensions arise when she strong arms a doddering old man into parting with some sandstone blocks on his property that hold sentimental value for him. What's at stake in this second vignette, however, is too elusive to register.
Worth the price of admission is the third, most fully realized panel of this triptych. That it's delivered in Reichardt's trademark damped-down style make it all the more wrenching. Newbie Lily Gladstone is a Native American ranch hand in a remote corner of the state who wanders by accident into the adult education classes conducted by a frazzled Kristen Stewart. After they adopt a ritual of hitting the local beanery after class, it's clear Gladstone has become enamored of Stewart in a somehow innocent way -- she's likely never heard the term homo-erotic. Stewart, dead-eyed and ashy-skinned from her four hour commute - and oblivious to the effect of her glamor on the girl -- wants only to find a gig closer to home.
The money-scene arrives toward the end, when Gladstone gives Stewart a lift on horseback to her waiting car, the girl's face radiant with a happiness she never knew existed. The stunner of a denouement shows just how unreadable humans can be to each other. Reichardt takes inspired liberties with Meloy's story by making the farmhand a female -- in the original he's a hapless guy - which angles the tale toward something more haunting.
Reichardt also excels at dramatizing the collision in the same time frame of unrelated crises. In a memorable scene from the first vignette, Laura Dern's client sits freaking out in her car, just as her lover calls to dump her - as if he'd just remembered he had a wife and daughter. Dern's face - the visual equivalent of What the F -- , mirrors the weirdness and pain of the moment. Reichardt is at her best when she teases out these small miseries of everyday life. It's hard to get your arms around any over-arching theme in Certain Women, but perhaps it's the separateness of humans operating at cross-purposes as they each pursue their idea of happiness.
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