Combustible Celluloid
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With: Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Jared Harris, James Le Gros, Rene Auberjonois, Lily Gladstone, John Getz, Ashlie Atkinson, James Jordan, Sara Rodier, Matt McTighe
Written by: Kelly Reichardt, based on stories by Maile Meloy
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
MPAA Rating: R for some language
Running Time: 0
Date: 10/24/2016

Certain Women (2016)

4 Stars (out of 4)

A Line in the Sandstone

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The wonderful American director Kelly Reichardt seems to have been made for short stories. Many great short stories are about moments, experiences, or revelations, rather than plots. Her films — including Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek's Cutoff (2011), and Night Moves (2014) — all nestle inside moments of quiet and reflection, rather than aggressively moving forward toward a tidy conclusion. So it makes sense that her latest film, and one of her best, Certain Women, comes from three short stories by author Maile Meloy. ("Tome" and "Native Sandstone," appear in Meloy's 2002 collection Half in Love, and "Travis, B." is from her 2009 collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.)

The stories overlap slightly, just at the edges, and they all take place in Montana, but otherwise, they are separate pieces. Lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) has a troubled client (Jared Harris), who takes desperate measures. Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) is an unhappy woman who sneaks off for cigarettes and bemoans that her detached teen daughter doesn't seem to like her. She and her husband (James Le Gros) meet with an older man (Rene Auberjonois), to buy a pile of sandstone with which to build their authentically local new house; the meeting reveals subtle things about their relationship. Finally, young lawyer Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) is forced to drive four hours to teach a class in a neighboring town; there, a shy rancher, Jamie (Lily Gladstone), takes a liking to her.

As with her previous films, Reichardt spends a great deal of time outdoors, capturing moods and weather beautifully, from the pile of sandstone in the front yard to Jamie's truck rolling silently off the road. Jeff Grace's beautifully subdued score underlines this. The first segment is set in the freezing cold, and most of the story takes place in Laura's office, or car, or a dismal shopping mall, peopled by the Powwow Dancers, American Indians in traditional garb, whose members stop to grab a bite at the food court. This time, however, Reichardt tackles interiors as well, including the haunting use of a mirror in the opening shot, to the subtle, emotional shifting during the sandstone negotiation sequence. As with Meek's Cutoff, conclusions to these stories don't necessarily arrive, but they feel totally satisfying. They've given us a glimpse of something happening, characters trying something, perhaps realizing that what they want is out of reach, or perhaps finding finding the strength to go on.

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