Certain Women: Lives told in brilliant silences

By Karen Gordon

You will not likely see a movie as quiet this year as Kelly Reichardt’s masterful Certain Women.  People talk, of course. But we get our deepest insights into the characters in the silent spaces.


Even the most kinetic performance – that of Kristen Stewart – follows this rule. Each of the characters is connected loosely, very loosely, but it’s what’s fascinating is that each one is their own universe. 

Reichardt based the film on short stories by American writer Maile Meloy.  And from that, she’s woven a narrative that focuses on four women. The first is a lawyer named Laura (Laura Dern), who is dealing withFuller (Jared Harris), a client won’t take her advice, nor go away. 

Laura’s relative visibility or in visibility seems to be an issue in her life. She’s also been dumped her married lover Ryan (James LeGros). He’s married to Gina (Michelle Williams).

Gina and Ryan have a teenage daughter who is typically sullen and bored with whatever her parents are doing. She frets and complains in her own world, oblivious to the fact that her parent’s relationship seems to be held together by paperclips and bandages. 

In her own way, Gina is outwardly as sullen and resentful as her daughter and can’t quite stop herself from oozing a quiet rage at her husband.  And yet - in the odd moments where the camera passes over the casual moments in the day – we see that they’re both in this together, even if they’re merely inching forward.

The silence is a major factor in the other storyline. In what will no doubt be a breakout role, Lily Gladstone plays a horse rancher, living an isolated existence in a room under the barn where her horses live.  She doesn’t even have a name. She’s referred to in the credits as “the Rancher” as if to underline that isolation. 

The need for human companionship sends her into town to a random night school class. It turns out to be for teachers, taught by Elizabeth Travis (Stewart, whose acting should no longer surprise anyone).  At the end of the class the two women establish an ad hoc tradition. They go to a local diner so Elizabeth can grab a quick bite before heading home.  And over the weeks Gladstone’s character develops a crush. 

Even in the most conventionally dramatic story-line of the four, there’s little hysteria.  None of these women are living lives of quiet desperation that will be shaken by outward events.  There are no lightning bolts that cause the character, and therefore the rest of us, to have a life-changing revelation.

In fact, the movie is so restrained that it makes normal life look contrived.  
We drop into the lives of the characters. Reichardt only hints at backstories, and even then, only for a few characters.  And yet, as the movie goes on, somehow, we begin to bond with all of them.

Credit each of the actors for fully inhabiting the skin of their characters. These performances are natural and restrained, but still we get a sense of who they are. 

This is the definition of skillful, aware filmmaking. The illusion is that little happens. But that’s just an illusion. As quiet as “Certain Women” is, these characters continued to live for me, long, long after the lights came up.

Certain Women. Directed and written by Kelly Reichardt. Based on stories by Maile Meloy. Starring Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams and Laura Dern.  At the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

Karen Gordon is a freelance writer and broadcaster. She’s currently heard Friday mornings as the movie reviewer for CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. She’s been covering movies, music and aspects of popular culture for more than twenty years on radio, television and in print. She also works as a creative producer, series story editor and writer  for documentary and lifestyle television. She is also the co-writer for two award-winning cookbooks, David Rocco’s Dolce Vita and Made in Italy. Karen still gets a little thrill every time the lights go down and the movie begins.