Left feeling empty

A review of Certain Women, a new film directed by Kelly Reichardt.

Certain Women, written and directed by Kelly Reichardt, follows the stories of three women in provincial Montana USA. Reichardt progresses each story at a measured pace, with a notable absence of dialogical drama, instead this is purposefully woven into lush backdrops and long shots of dramatic landscapes. The women in the film struggle to make themselves heard in their environments, and throughout the film there is reference to its Native American past.

The film’s protagonists are all women. Laura Dern’s character, the lawyer Laura Wells, is introduced to us first, and as a workplace psychologist I found her struggles with her client and the portrayal of his micro-aggressions towards her absolutely fascinating. The client demands a second opinion from Laura’s male colleague, who  gives the exact same information. As the client unquestioningly accepts it we see a a classic scenario of ‘mansplaining’. There is poetic justice when later the client holds a security guard hostage, and the police contact Laura, not her colleague, to help negotiate. The power has shifted – the imprisoned client is now a source of pity for Laura, who takes him a McDonald’s meal.  

In the second story we are introduced to Gina, played by Michelle Williams, a wife and mother planning to build a new rural home. Her obsession with using only native materials for the build is symbolic of the lack of security in her marriage – her husband is having an affair with Laura – and undermines Gina by overindulging their teenage daughter. Powerless in her own family, she becomes determined to acquire sandstone from the remains of an old Native American home which is owned by an old family acquaintance, Albert, who appears to have dementia. She convinces him to sell her the sandstone, having it collected almost instantly. Gina has exploited someone more vulnerable in an attempt to escape her own feelings of exploitation by her husband, and this makes for uncomfortable viewing, plus Gina herself is left feeling empty.    

In the final story we meet Kristen Stewart’s character, Beth, a law graduate with a punishing commute to teach an adult continuation course on Educational Law. Life improves when she meets a nameless Native American ranch hand, and they develop seemingly the only pure and connected relationship in the film, based on a mutual recognition of loneliness. The nameless ranch hand tends to livestock over the winter months while pining for human interaction and connection. Power is at play again here – Beth abruptly resigns from her post, but does not say goodbye to her new friend, who seeks her out. The isolated nameless rancher is the one we are left thinking of as the film closes, with her craving for human interaction in some ways a distillation of the isolation felt by the other women in the film.  

There are many elements to this film, from being a female in a male-dominated environment, to references to the Native American history, to the basic need for human interaction. It was a shame that the film portrayed only two roles for women in America – lawyers or homemakers. More importantly, by focusing on the stories of the three white women, the opportunity to explore intersectionality was lost. Perhaps by leaving the ranch hand nameless Reichardt was trying to address the invisibility of women of colour, but if so, it got lost in the rest of the narrative.

- Reviewed by Sabina Khanom, who is a Workplace Psychologist, King’s College London

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