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Certain Women - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Certain Women
Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B

Don't expect anything of consequence to happen in Certain Women. In fact, the sooner you surrender yourself to the idea that not much actually happens, the better off you'll be. Whether or not you can enjoy a movie of that sort is more left to question. I could tell you that there is a definitive feminist subtext to the proceedings, but I can think of few people for whom that would make such a slow-moving film more appealing. I enjoyed Certain Women but am finding it a challenge to pinpoint exactly why, which leaves me wanting in terms of who I might actually recommend it to. It worked for me, barely. I have no idea who else it might work for.

It's beautifully shot, in that way that shows rural Montana as a beautiful place I could not fathom ever living in. It's mostly set in Livingston, Montana, a real town of about seven thousand people. What the trailer does not make clear, and the opening credits hint at when noting it's "based on short stories" by Maile Meloy, is that this is a set of three different self-contained stories. The one common thread is the local lawyer Laura Wells, played by Laura Dern: in the opening sequence, which establishes this as a film with extended scenes of people just living their daily lives, we meet the man she's having an affair with. We find him as the husband of Gina Lewis, played by Michelle Williams, in the second story, but the fact of the affair is never brought up again -- Gina's story is her own. And in the third story, in which a young woman named Jamie (Lily Gladstone) develops a crush on a school law teacher (Kristen Stewart) who has to drive four hours away from Livingston for the job two evenings a week, Jamie simply finds herself briefly in Laura's law office, looking for where Kristen Stewart's character works.

But each of these stories is as calming as the last, just a sort of meditative vignette of daily living for women in rural Montana. The third story is a pseudo-love story: a young, lonely woman with a winter job looking after horses (lots of extended scenes of her working on the farm with horses, all of them lovely, none of them vital to the story) eager to spend time with this law teacher, who goes to a local diner with her for food after class. That's about the long and short of it with that one. The previous two stories, though, both move into the realm of how men tend to be dismissive of the intellectual capacity of women.

Laura Wells, the lawyer, has a client (Jared Harris, who many might recognize as Lane Pryce from Mad Men) who has been screwed over by his employer who was negligent in an accident affecting his eyesight, but the law is on their side regarding their lack of obligation to help him, for somewhat complicated reasons. These reasons have been explained to him over and over for eight months by Laura -- until she takes him to another lawyer, who happens to be a man, for a second opinion, who tells him the exact same thing, and he immediately takes his word for it. Things later escalate to an actual hostage situation involving Laura, and even in such a potentially volatile situation, Certain Women keeps things almost curiously calm. Nothing horrible ever happens in this movie. Spoiler alert!

When we meet Gina Lewis, her family on a camping trip, it takes some time to figure out what's going on, why we're even seeing this. They visit an older gentleman whose connection to them is relatively unclear. We just know that he's slightly out of it due to a recent injury from a fall. But Gina's husband is building her a house, and they want the stacks of sandstone discarded on his property. There's a peculiar conversation in the man's living room, with Gina being the one doing most of the talking -- and the older man consistently directs all of his answers to her husband. It takes a while, but eventually it dawns on you what's going on here.

This subtext of ingrained sexism pervades the first two stories if you look for it; you can look for it all you want in the third story but you won't find it, because the two key characters that time are both women. I thus struggled to find a common thread between all three stories, at least thematically. The two women aren't any better at effectively communicating with each other than the women of the other stories are at communicating with the men around them.

If nothing else, Certain Women is full of women who are strong in one way or another, multi-dimensional and strong characters. There's something almost mystifyingly compelling about all of them. I can think of no way to walk about this movie that would make anyone excited to see it. The fact that it is almost universally critically acclaimed hardly makes a difference. This falls into the category of film that critics love but audiences don't even bother going to see. I fall squarely in the middle, both critic and film-loving audience member: it did not feel like a waste of time to me, but it will likely feel like a waste of time to most of the rest of you. It's usually a compliment to say a movie is unpredictable, but this one's only unpredictable because you can't predict virtually nothing actually happening.

Laura Dern is one of several CERTAIN WOMEN who are . . . pleasant but bemusing, I guess?

Overall: B
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