Laura Dern has the most expressive mouth in cinema. When she is aghast or incredulous, it falls open to form a trapezoid. In times of extreme stress, which have most often arisen in her films for David Lynch, there’s no telling where that mouth might go; it roams all over her face like a shape-shifting blob in a futile search for solidity. (A friend pointed out that in one scene in Blue Velvet, it somehow forms a figure of eight.) When she is downcast, it would take an industrial winch to turn her frown upside down.
Certain Women gives her facial repertoire a full workout, though this is not a film of high drama. That would be out of character for Kelly Reichardt, who is a slow-burn sort of director even when tiptoeing into genre, as she did with Meek’s Cutoff (a western) and Night Moves (a thriller about ecoterrorism). Her new picture is comprised of three stories adapted from the fiction of Maile Meloy; they are told separately, one after the other, with a brief coda at the end of the film bringing us up to speed. They are linked by a common location – bracingly cold south-western Montana – and by thin pieces of connective tissue. There is also a thematic continuity, with each story focusing on a lonely woman who is in some way thwarted, overruled or subdued. The title is a bit of a joke: these women don’t seem certain of very much at all.
Dern plays a lawyer, Laura, who is having trouble making herself heard. One of her clients, Fuller (Jared Harris), wants to pursue an injury claim even though she has told him repeatedly that his earlier acceptance of a token settlement precludes further action. She takes him to a male colleague for a second opinion, which Fuller accepts without complaint. What cheek. “The only thing left to do is get a machine gun and kill everyone,” he huffs on the way home. Cue a classic case of Dern Mouth as she gives him a stern dressing-down.
Another instance of male authority taking precedence crops up when the irritable Gina (Michelle Williams) and her easygoing husband, Ryan (James Le Gros), drop in on an elderly acquaintance, Albert (René Auberjonois), to try to persuade him to sell them the native sandstone stacked in front of his house. The encounter captures perfectly the difficulty of feigning nonchalance in front of a person who has something you desperately want.
The awkwardness is exacerbated by Albert’s habit of stonewalling Gina in favour of Ryan. Only once does she break through the old coot’s crust of indifference. As they stand on the porch together, musing on the nuances of birdsong, Albert gazes at her in startled amazement. At last, they’re speaking the same language. But Gina has already turned away and is walking back to the car. She misses by seconds this fleeting connection, this silent rapprochement.
In the final story, an isolated Native American farmhand, listed in the credits only as “the Rancher” and played by the newcomer Lily Gladstone, wanders into an evening law class at a community centre. She plonks herself down at the back and becomes slowly besotted with the nervy, frumpy teacher, Beth (Kristen Stewart). The two women repair to a diner afterwards and it soon becomes a weekly post-class ritual for them to convene there before Beth makes the long drive back to her home town. One night, the Rancher brings a horse instead of a jeep and proposes that they ride to the diner. There is a brief moment of suspense when it appears likely that she has overstepped the mark and expressed too bluntly a desire to sweep Beth off her feet.
This is an undemonstrative picture, richer in detail than incident, and ever-so-slightly wholegrain and dull. It won’t be news that Dern, Stewart and Williams (who has made three films with Reichardt) give delicate performances. And Gladstone, a 30-year-old capable of being both girlish and grave, is a real find. The Rancher knows the land and keeps herself suitably defended against the elements. Her face, though, is helplessly exposed. Her feelings are written there for all to see in a giddy adolescent hand, the dot over every “i” replaced by a squiggly little loveheart.