certain women is an eerily prescient study of disconnected lives in midwest america

The acclaimed independent director Kelly Reichardt drew Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern and Michelle Williams to her latest project.

by Colin Crummy
06 March 2017, 9:29pm

Kelly Reichardt has a good excuse for not catching the Oscars - she was travelling - but she probably wouldn't have watched it anyway. She's one of American indie's most acclaimed directors, but rarely figures in the minds of Academy voters. Her minimalist films don't shout or cry out for your attention. But they attract A List talent. Reichardt doesn't need to go to Hollywood, Hollywood usually comes to her.

In a show of her strength as a filmmaker, Reichardt's latest picture, Certain Women, stars Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and regular collaborator, Michelle Williams, in three distinct stories of lives adrift in rural Montana.

It's a small film, made in a place where they offered the best tax breaks to make it, with a high wattage cast list. The tales - adapted from short stories by Maile Meloy - only very marginally intersect, one through a cheating husband. But the drama of an affair is the least thing on Reichardt's mind as a storyteller. She rarely touches sex or violence, at least not in direct or obvious ways.

The faintest of connections and the missed ones are most significant here, and in the third and most satisfying story finds fullest expression. There, Stewart plays a tired law grad, who teaches night school to make ends meet. A lonesome rancher, played by Native American actor Lily Gladstone, turns up and forms a romantic attachment for her teacher.

I caught the film at last year's Sundance film festival where it premiered and found it deeply affecting at the time. But a year on, and several seismic political shifts later, Certain Women's three, lightly intersecting stories, feel prescient for the way they describe disconnected lives in the American Midwest. It is probably no coincidence the first story begins with a disgruntled middle aged white guy with a grudge against the system.

I am interested in why you choose to work in rural locations and why specifically Montana, for this film.
These stories were written for Montana so that was the natural place to go. In Montana you're really locked in by the mountain ranges, it was the least tuned in to the politics of life that I've been in in a couple of decades. You could really tune out quite easily to what was happening outside of Montana. That's not so easy to do on where I live, for a lot of reasons.

That idea of places outside the political mainstream feels very timely in this particular moment…
I wasn't in this particular moment [when she made this film]. It's set in a nicer moment.

Sure, but in a way the film hits upon a certain mood of people who feel they are not being heard.
It does. The Jared Harris character from the first story is very of this moment. He's a man in his mid 50s whose has been injured and has a real complaint but cannot grasp the idea that the system is not going to work in his favour. That's not something he has been accustomed to, and he can't get around it. Whereas the people he encounters, his female lawyer, anyone that wasn't in his lot in life, would know sooner that the system wouldn't work for them. Suddenly, while he does have a legitimate complaint he can't get over it. Like it's so unfair to him in particular, as opposed to this being the adult world for most people.

And that connects to how the women in the film don't have the same expectations…
Right, by the time the Native American rancher takes her knocks - she's far less expecting of the world - she's more self reliant than his character. The man is in this story with his lawyer, played by Laura Dern, and she's trying to give him legal advice. He wants something else from her; he's not hearing her on that level. He's wanting some comfort from her, that she's not interested in giving. There's a lot of miscommunications. And then there's these moments where people have a momentary glimpse into one another. There's a lot of missed moments.

Even Kristen Stewart's law graduate character understands the lack of agency in her life better than he.
Right, crappy car, driving a long time to pay off student loans…

This is your first time working with Kristen, but she feels entirely at home in a Kelly Reichardt film. I think it's to do with how internal she is. What do you think?
It's acting, it's all acting. It's just that she's good at it. It's - as Michelle [Williams] would say - it's reacting. She's a really good listener and she doesn't have to be doing anything. She's comfortable not showing an expression and just letting things be internal, whereas some actors as they might be in life are just more gestural and more expressive. Kristen doesn't feel like she has to be doing stuff.

Certain Women is in cinemas now


Text Colin Crummy

michelle williams
Kristen Stewart
Laura Dern
Kelly Reichardt