Though it opens like PSYCHO – a woman returning to her office after indulging in an illicit lunchtime affair – any similarity to CERTAIN WOMEN emphatically ends there. Hitchcock and Kelly Reichardt are playing very different games with the audience’s emotions. Where Janet Leigh’s recklessness was to lead her to robbery and murder, lawyer Laura (Laura Dern) finds nothing more dramatic waiting for her back at work than the sad but persistent victim of an industrial accident (Jared Harris) still trying to get the compensation to which he wrongly thinks he’s entitled.
True, the story – one of three adapted by Reichardt from Maile Meloy’s collection BOTH WAYS IS THE ONLY WAY I WANT IT – develops into an armed siege, but one conducted in the same deceptively quiet way that characterises the rest of the film. The loudest sound is the whistle of trains passing through the mountainous landscape, which seems to offer an escape from the confines of this small town which is never acted upon.
In the second slice of Montana life, Gina (Michelle Williams) – whose husband Ryan (James Le Gros) we notice in passing is Laura’s lunchtime lover – is living in a cramped tent on the land where her house is to be built, along with Ryan and her sullen and monosyllabic teenage daughter. Gina has her heart set on building with blocks of sandstone from a disused school, which are now heaped up in front of the bungalow belonging to the elderly Albert (Rene Auberjonois). Gina agonises over whether or not she’s taking advantage of the old man’s failing memory, but receives precious little help or comfort from her family.
… no earthquake or plague of frogs needed here to wrap everything up …
Finally and most affectingly, following a four-hour drive caused by a mix-up over township names, young law graduate Elizabeth Travis (Kristen Stewart) finds herself teaching School Law to an evening class of locals who need no introduction (“We all know each other”). Unfortunately she has no clear idea of what School Law is, and in any case the class are more interested in teaching assistants’ salaries and parking permits.
Into the classroom, curious about what everybody was turning up for, comes Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a ranch-hand from out of town whose entire life is governed by horses: stabling, feeding and riding out. Attracted by ElizabethÕs vulnerability, Jamie points her in the direction of the local diner, befriends her and over several weeks falls in love. So when Elizabeth quits teaching, exhausted by the eight-hour drive, Jamie makes the journey herself and eventually Ð after visiting the law office where Laura is glimpsed, returning from lunch – tracks Elizabeth down. On her way home again Jamie falls asleep at the wheel and winds up in a field.
Executive-produced by Todd Haynes – lately a specialist in strong but compromised women, from MILDRED PIERCE to CAROL via FAR FROM HEAVEN – Kelly Reichardt’s film moves at its own deliberate pace, allowing the performances to blossom amid the unforgiving Badlands. Among the disappointing and generally inadequate men, Rene Auberjonois (now in his late 70s) and Jared Harris are given their chance to shine: no mean feat for Harris to play a doomed mid-Western construction worker and the chain-smoking King George V1 in THE CROWN in quick succession. Dern, Williams and Stewart (waif-like and hollow-eyed, possibly from sleepless nights after reading Donald Trump’s obsessive tweets about her) are faultless, as is the newcomer Lily Gladstone, beautifully expressing wordless adoration.
So, definitely not PSYCHO, and despite the glancing connections between the stories, not SHORT CUTS or MAGNOLIA either: no earthquake or plague of frogs needed here to wrap everything up. Instead, CERTAIN WOMEN offers characters trapped in varying degrees of thwartedness, hemmed in by the Rockies which are almost always in view.