A couple of months ago I wrote a review of 20th Century Women in which I said this: Films that have no plot need to be driven by interesting characters… [One option is to] just have regular people living regular lives and dial down the drama until it’s essentially a slightly lowered reality which revels in the details of everyday existence. [This] is almost impossible to pull off unless you have an impressively well-worked script. Without it, the story meanders, the pace grinds, and characters seem grey and passive, even downright unlikeable.
20th Century Women was a fantastic example of how to get that right. Certain Women is a fantastic example of how to get it wrong. The story meanders, the pace grinds, and characters seem grey and passive, even downright unlikeable. The absolute worst thing you can do when you don’t have a plot is to also not have any characters. You might wonder how it’s possible to end up without either, but Certain Women achieves it by splitting its single plotless story into three plotless stories containing entirely different casts and thereby diluting all its characterisation. The homeopathic characters that are left simply drift around without impetus or obvious motivation, presumably waiting for the plot to happen to them. Pity there isn’t one.
This is an anthology, three short films in one. On their own, they’re hardly compelling, but the film’s most egregious failure is its inability to meaningfully connect them. It is no more than the sum of its meagre parts. Every time you think you might care, you’re pulled away. It’s a shame, because the slightest of films can have powerful impacts. Two of my favourites will suffice as examples: Lost in Translation built its threadbare narrative to a beguiling, aching climax; Monsters found a beautifully gentle love story in its visual and musical craft. Both of them excelled where Certain Women loses its way: they understood that a quiet character study must give its characters the time and space to be interesting.
Laura Dern is fine, so is Kristen Stewart. Michelle Williams is so type-cast into dreary repressed wife at this point that it mostly just grates. Lily Gladstone is the one bright spark, partly because she isn’t completely passive and partly because I think maybe she smiles at one point. It’s hard to remember because no-one smiles. No-one is ever happy. There’s no joy to break the plodding greyness, barely anyone for whom you care.
The setting is authentic, yet intriguingly timeless. The tone is mysterious; the dialogue sincere. The elements are certainly there, yet remain only that: just there, stacked flatly on the screen. Certain Women wants to shine a light on women’s lives, to tell simple stories that are too rarely told. The intent is admirable, yet the light so feeble that it leaves your eyes straining for meaning. The film wants to build thematic depth, but there’s not enough substance to form a foundation. We have to move beyond the knee-jerk reaction of praising something for being a piece of feminism. Yes, this is a film by women about women… in which women are put-upon and subdued for two hours before the film abruptly ends. That’s hardly empowerment any way you cut it, and it’s barely entertainment either.