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Feminist Western 'Certain Women' Takes On Friendship And Stoicism


This is FRESH AIR. Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt has been described in The New York Times as making feminist Westerns. In her new film "Certain Women," she looks at the intersecting lives of several Montana women played by Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone. Our critic-at-large John Powers has this review.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: I once took a trip up the Amazon, and the boat went so slowly that for the first several hours all I noticed was my own boredom. But gradually, my inner clock began slowing down. And as I gave myself over to river time, I began to take in the wonders around me. I saw pink freshwater dolphins leaping out of the corner of my eye.

You might find yourself having a similar experience watching the films of Kelly Reichardt, whose almost saintly integrity has won her worldwide critical acclaim but left her largely unknown to the public. Ever since her 1994 debut "River Of Grass," this 52-year-old filmmaker has developed a stripped-down vision uniquely her own, one that asks you to give yourself over to her quiet restraint and unhurried rhythm.

Her latest film, "Certain Women," is one of her finest. Based on short stories by Maile Meloy, it tells the loosely interlinked tales of three women in small-town Montana, where the air is chill and the skies are gray. In the first, the great Laura Dern plays a lawyer with a slippery boyfriend. She's having trouble with a blue-collar client - that's Jared Harris - who wants something more heartfelt from her than legal advice.

In the second, Michelle Williams shines as a does-everything wife with a slippery husband and a sulky daughter, who focuses her bristling energy onto getting authentic local sandstone for a new house. These rather wispy stories set us up for the third and richest one, which centers on a moving turn by newcomer Lily Gladstone. She plays a lonely Native American ranch hand who stumbles across a night class taught by a badly-dressed young lawyer, Beth Travis, superbly played by Kristen Stewart, who must drive four hours each way to teach it.

Quickly developing a crush, she takes Beth to the local diner. And these two awkward women develop a bond whose fragility will become agonizing to watch. Here, she asks Stewart's lawyer why she once mentioned she feared that she might wind up selling shoes.


LILY GLADSTONE: (As Jamie) Why were you afraid of selling shoes?

KRISTEN STEWART: (As Elizabeth Travis) Have you ever sold shoes?

GLADSTONE: (As Jamie) I mean, why were you afraid you couldn't get anything else?

STEWART: (As Elizabeth Travis) I don't know, because my mom works in a school cafeteria, my sister in a hospital laundry. So selling shoes is the nicest job a girl from my family's supposed to get.

POWERS: Now, in some ways, Reichardt's work is most startling for what it refuses to be. Where Hollywood likes big, easy-to-market storylines, her films are almost like haikus - two friends take a seemingly uneventful camping trip in "Old Joy," a drifter searches for her missing dog in "Wendy And Lucy." Where Hollywood heroes are larger than life, Reichardt's live marginal existences, either psychologically or materially, and often have no clear idea what to do. Where Hollywood specializes in punchy dialogue, her characters are so laconic or inarticulate that they make the yup-nope cowboys of yore seem positively garrulous.

And have I mentioned that she's fascinated by female stoicism? In fact, Reichardt is tuned to precisely the thing that most movies cut out, the largely undramatic texture of daily life. She pays rapt attention to silences. She lingers over small private moments charged with ambivalence yearning or fleeting joy and she captures how her characters fit into the vast, sometimes overwhelming landscape of the American frontier, as in her feminist Western "Meek's Cutoff," the most realistic film I've ever seen about the crushing rigors of crossing America in a wagon train.

You find all of this and more in "Certain Women," whose heroines, all tremendously well-acted, are marked by their bottled-up uncertainty. Should Dern's goodhearted lawyer be warmer to her troubled client, even though he doesn't trust her legal advice because she's a woman? Will Williams's wife really find satisfaction when she finally gets that sandstone, or is she actually building herself a prison? And what does the yearning bighearted ranch hand learn from an affection for Beth that she knows is impossible?

These are the kinds of questions that can't be answered by the usual movie methods - cape crusaders, psycho-drama showdowns, miraculous plot twists. They must be approached with the same patience and care that Reichardt brings to her filmmaking. Her movies are all about noticing small things to discover the enormous things within. This doesn't happen quickly. But like life itself, her work has a way of sneaking up on you.

GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com.


GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be James Fallows, who has been writing an election blog for The Atlantic. He's the magazine's national correspondent. Earlier this year, he wrote an article called "How America Is Putting Itself Back Together" based on three years of flying around the country in a single-engine plane. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Mooj Zadie. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.
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