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Certain Women review: short stories to the big screen with a faultless simplicity

March 2, 2017

Film + EntertainmentReview | by Cormac O'Brien


When Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield says something just about killed him, he could’ve been talking about Reichardt’s films. Their distinctly heart heavy tug packs an almost murderous punch of sadness, melancholy and hope; that could surely just about kill anyone.

Like the Maile Molloy short stories that begat it, Certain Women has three barely intersecting setups that play out as simple, exquisitely-observed dramas: a lawyer and her client become involved in a desperate hostage stand-off with the police, a mother tries to keep her quarrelling family together by building a countryside getaway and a chance encounter between two disparately isolated young women might lead to something more than friendship.

Avoiding the easy pleasures too often granted in Hollywood drama, especially those as brightly cast as this, Certain Women is a web spun from silent lines of communications where glances do away with what could be whole scenes of exposition. Brevity and concise storytelling being to the merit of short story format, in film only sometimes works. Thankfully, here it does. And Certain Women having excised the prose, even more sparsely, then lets the dialogue and visual hold autonomy, granting space for actresses like Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Lily Gladstone and Michelle Williams to give rare understated performances. Focus landing squarely on talented shoulders their characters captivate, often in the same breath proving themselves ambivalently brave, weak, selfish and generous.

Of course, overt sensitivity has never exactly boosted film in the critical view, when tried it too frequently wanders into Annie Proulx adaption territory (the hand-wrung drama of Brokeback Mountain or The Shipping News – almost majestic in its mawkishness) but Reichardt’s uncommon touch for character and maddening refusal to play-to-the-crowd take these short stories to the big screen with a faultless simplicity.

From Michelle Williams cutthroat pursuit of authentic sandstone foundations for her second family home; Kristen Stewart’s hardscrabble career in legal practice; Lilly Gladstone’s painfully solitary care of her equine charges; to Jared Harris’ broken, furious handyman Fuller, Certain Women is a series of stories consumed with craft. “You can’t tell where the old wood ends and the new wood begins,” says Sheriff Rowles admiringly of Fuller’s carpentry work, standing outside the building where Fuller holds Dern’s character Laura hostage. Much the same could be said of Kelly Reichardt’s book-to-film adaption, it’s impeccably done. But, perhaps, Certain Women is less about admiration for well-wrought craft and more so a series of object lessons in the dangerous gamble and sacrifices inherent in pursuing a vocation…. much like writing or even filmmaking?

Certain Women in released in UK cinemas of March 3rd

Words by Cormac O’Brien