As many of my neural pathways have been forged by the subtle sledgehammer of advertising, I left a screening of Certain Women in search of junk food. Led by the imagined surtitle "You too can enjoy burgers and bucket-sized cokes and look like Kristen Stewart!", it wasn't in any way representative of the film's lack of nutritional value. Beyond the nuanced performances of Stewart, Michelle Williams and Laura Dern, there is plenty to recommend this three-paned window into North Western womanhood.
Its narrative shape has the best hallmarks of a collection of short stories: keenly observed, invitingly sidestepping the obvious, its constituent thirds of a piece with each other but not labouredly interwoven. Director Kelly Reichardt's screenplay is adapted from Maile Meloy's short stories – we begin with Dern and her lover, a single shot suggesting how incidental he is to her story. She is a lawyer with a persistent client who may take desperate measures in service of his hopeless case. Professional and personable, she is the first to be the subject of men's assumptions which feminism is hopefully eroding. Williams next plays someone designing an 'authentic' Montanan house for herself and her family, from whom she seems to be alienated. Finally, Lily Gladstone is a ranch-hand who happens upon a night-school class, and falls for its teacher, Beth (Stewart). The stories don't substantially coincide: their corners touch.
Certain Women's title is an inviting pun… its three lead characters are seen at a point of decision, where a path is chosen randomly (Gladstone is at a loose end and audits Stewart's class), or a change of expression shows their feelings to be less than unambiguous (Dern's affair doesn't seem so fulfilling). There is genuine tension, and you yearn for the romance of the final third to be requited. But as with the pace of life depicted, the film's progress is defiantly adagio – stick with it. Funded by Montana's Big Sky Film Grant, the snow-capped peaks and wild expanses of the film look delicious (worlds away from the bone-freezing clarity of The Revenant's cinematography, also filmed here). Lilac-tinged greys, brickish browns, and the ever-present shimmer of 16mm give the still distance a sense of Van Gogh-like movement. Williams' acquisitive approach to this landscape (she seeks sandstone that is aesthetically 'of the land') complicates the audience's pure enjoyment of it. Indeed, as she is one of the director's frequent collaborators, it may be surprising to see that she is the least sympathetic character, on whom least time is spent. Ah, well – enjoy their Western Meek's Cutoff to rectify this.
Gladstone instead gets a lot of the focus as we get deeper into the film. She is mostly in the company of her horses, so in lieu of dialogue we get fondly drawn quotidian repetition – cold daylight streaming in through the stable-door, headlamps filling up a night-darkened window. Thus, more rides on her connection with Stewart, developed as they chat in a diner (provider of aforementioned burgers). The attraction is played out in her eyes, and the smile of an introvert let out. Her appearance here has a little of the pre-fame Bob Dylan, her presence maybe the stoic gravity of Keanu Reeves. The warmth and suggestion of a subcutaneous emotional life is her own, and this narrative section is given a lot of space - a great, hands-off move from Reichardt.
Give in to its pace, tune into the Montana mindset – and see why this was named the LFF's Best Film of 2016. It's more complex than I realised on first watch, as indeed are certain women, uncertain women, and anyone on whom a patient lens may be trained for 35 minutes.