Written & Directed by Kelly Reichardt Starring Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Lily Gladstone, James le Gros, Jared Harris & Rene Auberjonois Film Review by Dean Pettipher
The rising prominence of women in film, both on and off-camera, as well as the increasingly greater accuracy with which they are depicted through the art of the moving image, are without question beautiful, essential and fruitful societal progressions. However, while such developments rightly deserve much celebration and official recognition within all social circles, they must never become immune to constructive scrutiny. An inability and/or an unwillingness to point out clear issues, seemingly due to a fear of appearing to have misogynistic motives behind such claims, is not one of the flames of prosperity at the end of a long, dark journey that is the quest for gender equality in the movie business. Such a sentiment plagues the soul, however, when one observes the overwhelmingly positive critical acclaim given to Certain Women (2016), which has to date included winning the Best Film Award from the 2016 London Film Festival’s Official Competition for “inspiring, inventive and distinctive filmmaking.” The sickness within sensitive minds especially grows greater still when one reads that ostensibly every major film critic offers praise of the most blindly bright and ceaselessly glowing sort for the picture, noting what in many other films would be deemed as weaknesses as profound strengths instead.
Fortunately, that illness starts to dispel within both heart and mind when one notes a number of bold voices in the user review section of IMDb for example, for the reviews within such online communities are, mostly, in stark contrast with the supposedly more reputable critics, extremely negative. Work on these platforms evidently features a noteworthy sense of anger in the wake of the notion that there are certainly worse films out there, but few films released this year have been so grossly overrated as Certain Women, for reasons that are in truth unclear but seem, to a certain degree at least, to be fuelled by a political agenda to promote a positive image of women in film at all costs. Finally, there are those firmly held opinions somewhere in the middle. Know that there is no misogyny here. Rather, there is a compelling need to share one’s honest feelings about a movie, which, while clearly featuring much to cherish, is ultimately a disappointing experience that truly could have been so much better. Moreover, there are perfectly reasonable concerns that explain plainly why Certain Women will most likely not reach audiences beyond various national festival circuits.
Much of the movie is marred by the ‘talking heads’ disaster, which veteran screenwriters will know must be avoided at all costs. Individual scenes are fantastic, showing both clear and uniquely subtle instances of character development. In the end, though, such developments soon appear to be going nowhere significant, since, quite frankly, not much at all ultimately happens in relation to the plot, which ends up feeling as simple as the collection of short stories, written by the American authoress, Malie Maloy, on which the movie is based. Typically, short stories, at least in the literary world, are known for their impressive capacity to present complex characters with simple plots. This golden rule is, however, taken to the extreme and abused by Certain Women. With so little occurring in terms of suspense, tension, or heightened emotion of any other sort, one chuckles occasionally and ponders over some initially-intriguing surprises in a desperate search for something of substance to finally occur.
The problems with the story do not cease there, for links between the three intertwining tales of the film are deliberately not capitalized upon, to the point where they end up feeling so tenuous that they might as well not even be there. Moreover, the payoffs for all of the four major heroines of the picture amount to frustrating anti-climaxes. One particular scene that is meant to amount to the film’s most climactic event instead serves as a key illustration of the film’s emotional depth falling flat onto the road. The scene in focus features Certain Women’s only instance of an orchestral soundtrack playing in the background. Unfortunately, since the build-up has mostly been slow and at times tedious, the unsurprising resolution ends up having so much pressure placed upon it to instil a long-lasting impression with audiences, as well as shed the brightest light on the depressing atmosphere of the story, in the end little sentiment is inspired within audience hearts beyond a gloomy reminder of how boring life can be in small, ordinary town situated in the middle of nowhere. Such a setting is presented here as one of the cruellest killers of dreams, or, from another perspective, a reminder to constantly take responsibility for one’s life for the sake of the potentially worthwhile future outside the prison of one’s lifeless comfort zone. One only wishes that such sentiments could have been presented in a less dreary fashion.
In spite of these damning issues, Certain Women remains, without a doubt, a work of art by bounteous artists at the height of their tremendous talents. On the other hand, this very reality only illustrates further that the movie could have been sensational. The acting is outstanding but no one is granted any material to push their capabilities beyond or even close to what audiences will have seen already. For a much better performance from Laura Dern, which, incidentally, also highlights a strong albeit imperfect female character, watch Wild (2014). For a better depiction of a seriously imperfect life lived by a women in small town America from Michelle Williams, which might even get her nominated for an Oscar, buy a ticket for Manchester by the Sea (2016). For Kristen Stewart, aside from her César (French Oscar) Award-winning performance in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), to see how she is able to adapt to the unique styles of different directors with ease, go check out Woody Allen’s Café Society (2016). In truth, the only performances that are really worth noting in Certain Women are Lily Gladstone’s debut film role and Jared Harris’s supporting role, although even their few gripping, emotionally-turbulent moments fail to compensate for the overall plainness displayed by the other frontline members of the cast. Finally, director Kelly Reichardt has also told much more engaging stories through her own distinctive flair in filmmaking. In previous work, she has been able to employ satisfying amounts of action that leave one feeling aptly fulfilled. The prime examples are Night Moves (2013) and Wendy and Lucy (2008). Thus, no sleep need be lost at all if one is unable to see Reichardt’s latest project, for it is not her finest feature by a long ride. The imagery of the movie is as gorgeous as the four principle women it often graciously lies behind. However, while the astounding presentation of Montana’s natural beauty compels one to take a holiday there, this quality also cannot compensate for what the film lacks and so cannot save the audience from boredom. Combine the minimal amount of action with such imagery and it soon feels as if one is watching a new version of the reality show entitled Big Brother (2000-Present), shot in this case on a slightly larger scale.
Certain Women clearly succeeds in presenting an honest depiction of the boring lives of oppressed women in small town America. Surely, though, these various women must all, at least once in their lives, experience a fairly exciting moment that could be brought to life in a movie for the sake of a better story, without the need for gross exaggeration often seen in such art? Indeed, small towns around the world but in North America especially are known for being places where everyone knows everyone, as well as settings that are often hailed as tragically-declining gold standards of living, while they ultimately hide as much ugliness, dullness and pointlessness as any other human settlement. One appreciates the sincerity but this style of filmmaking is too dull and there must be more interesting ways to highlight the trappings of small town life than this.
Not even positive political motivation is an excuse for dishonesty through, for example, the form of great exaggeration in relation to the positive qualities of and the ignorance of the negative points concerning Certain Women. Even lovers of all the artists involved, or of films about small town America, should feel no urgency to see it. Instead, for better explorations of the latter subject, albeit from quite different angles, see Dogville (2003), Dazed & Confused (1993), or It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). One should only go out of their way to see Certain Women if one feels the urge to explore an unusual style of filmmaking that some would call poetry and others might call plain. Gender equality in filmmaking is a wonderful thing but it must also be applied to film criticism. Otherwise, Certain Women and many films will enjoy unfair privileges linked with favouritism and/or idolization that have run rampant for centuries and in truth will never be totally extinguished. Such privileges are best illustrated with Leo Tolstoy’s (1828-1910) novel entitled War and Peace (1869). The literary work features a character named Hélène, who Tolstoy presents as a dangerous antagonist, but first and foremost as a woman who is so beautiful, it becomes “firmly established that she could say the emptiest and stupidest things and everybody” goes out of their way to spend ages over-analysing her words in order to ascertain some small amount of philosophical insight, which they for some reason feel simply must be there somewhere. With this film, there are aesthetically-pleasing elements and moments of emotional depth but truly, in both cases, not as much as many well-renowned critics have lately declared. There is nothing empty here. Nor is there anything stupid. There is just a hell of a lot of frustration with Certain Women because the movie cannot compare with the terribly overhyped image painted in one’s head by various critics. Not much cause is granted in for warranting rage akin to John Goodman’s character, Walter Sobchak, in The Big Lebowski (1998), during that famous scene where he furiously asks, “Has the whole world gone crazy?!” However, there is a great need for balance: Praising Certain Women when esteemed credit simply cannot be denied, while also scrutinizing Certain Women when its faults, for which other films would rightly be reprimanded, are nothing short of unquestionable. Accordingly, what remains, is an authentic and justifiably good but certainly not great movie about ‘real’ women’s roles in small town America.
Read more Film Reviews this way. CERTAIN WOMEN is in UK cinemas 3 March.