Director Kelly Reichart's latest is a loosely related triptych of women in Montana. Laura Dern plays a worn lawyer who struggles with unconscious gender perceptions, Michelle Williams is a mother and wife who is misunderstood most by those who know her best in her struggle to make something worthwhile, and Lily Gladstone searches for a connection outside of the relative quiet of her days.
Reichart shoots in captivating 16mm, whose grain and depth gives Todd Haynes' (who should be noted is an executive producer for this film) Carol of the previous year a run for its money. It's stunning and you simply can't imagine the story being captured in any other way. Lily Gladstone's portion of the film is the apex, both visually and narratively. The nightscapes of her on horse and driving in the car take the cake in every way.
All of the cast are strong and monumental in skill. There are layers and shadows and nuance in every action, every unexplained facial expression, every suppressed emotion in all three women. As mentioned before, Gladstone is phenomenal: a particular long take of her driving is enough to break the heart. Interestingly enough, Reichart makes an effort for us to see all of the women in a car at some point in the story and rather than opt for what would be a more intimate snapshot inside the car with the actors, Reichart shows them all through the barrier of a window. That distance makes their loneliness more profound and yet more tangible -- such as when we see the window's reflection of the passing landscape alter the emotion on Williams' face.
Reichart makes her own use of breadth within the frame, using architecture to separate characters visually or the distance of a lone figure in an abandoned car to emphasize isolation. When Reichart's characters drive, we rarely see what's on the road before them, but rather their faces and what they're leaving behind. Like the film's narrative, what is to come ahead is rarely as important as what's happening within.
Certain Women is not only a testament to the trust Reichart imparts on her actresses, which must be considerable for how much the story relies on their skill apart from words, but also of Reichart's strong sense of purpose. In what seems to be the current cultural and political landscape wherein words such as feminism and race are thrown around, Reichart's film makes a resolute statement without attempting to ram a message down the viewer's throat. It's not meant to be a proverbial package, but rather an attempt to make it easier to empathize with those we may not be familiar with.