CINEMA CAPSULE: ‘Certain Women’ – This Train Carries Enlightenment and Boredom

This may sound odd, but I sincerely hope that one day my life will recalibrate my artistic sensibilities in such a way that the films of Kelly Reichardt actually start speaking to me. Unfortunately, the release of her latest, Certain Women, does not mark the coming of that day.

Its first shot, in fact, epitomizes how her distinct brand of artistry – a rarity in an industry populated by artless directors – almost always falls on deaf ears for me, even though I nevertheless and wholeheartedly recognize that artistry. As the credits roll, Reichardt fixates her consistently steady, borderline point-and-shoot camera, colored with her signature drab hues, on a freight train in the far-off distance slowly creeping closer and closer amidst what appears to be the Great Plains of America. As I was sitting there watching this locomotive painstakingly make its way towards the camera, two causally related thoughts popped into my brain: 1) Oh no…am I really going to be stuck here watching this looooong shot until that speck of a train finally rushes past the camera? Which inspired 2) Looks like I am, sooooo WHY does Reichardt want this to be our introduction to the world of the movie?

The monotonous freight car after freight car made me think of the title; is it supposed to be an indicator that the three tangentially related vignettes about to unfold each depicts a certain type of women, and that the audience should not try to deduce overarching truths about the state of all women today from their stories. Many people often interpret movies so clearly ABOUT women – you know, like those bearing that very word in their titles – as universal statements applicable to every member of the gender, thereby robbing the characters of their individuality in the name of turning them into every(wo)man. The freight train could be seen as an apt symbol for this phenomenon; as with women, onlookers often view freight cars as all the same besides minor superficial differences, with nary a thought to the goods contained within that differentiate one from the next. They often treat such every(wo)man characters in the same way – as stand-ins for all women as opposed to nuanced individuals. Was Reichardt trying to inspire these thoughts in her audience by forcing them to stare at a line of freight cars as a form a prelude to a movie that they otherwise could’ve interpreted as merely featuring a similar line of similarly individuality-deprived women training past our eyes?

Or is this shot supposed to be an introduction to the various other, thematically resonant images of transportation systems – mostly roads – cutting through the overwhelmingly barren expanse of rural Middle America that appear in and connect each of the vignettes? These seem to capture the emotionally dichotomous nature inherent to the shared experience of traveling through roads and traveling through life. Though each of the women in the vignettes have people in their lives, they nonetheless feel painfully alone in their existences; similarly, an individual training or driving through the country may feel alone in their journey, even though they’re literally participating in a transportation system that connects people. The aforementioned rural expanse may induce feelings of isolation in those living their lives surrounded by it, yet the constant images of roads and cars and trains should serve as hopeful reminders of the potential to be more connected to each other than we may feel.

These are all intriguing ideas worth exploring, and any movie like Certain Women that so intentionally touches upon them deserves to be commended…but at the end of the day I was still stuck in a theatre watching a shot in which nothing else happens besides a train chugging along. As always, Reichardt impressively imposes this shot’s deliberate pace throughout the flick, making her stories feel like they’re moving at the speed of real life. In doing so, she aims to highlight the profundity in mundanity. Reichardt understands that audiences are accustomed to being served stories important and/or big enough to be worth their time, so by depriving them of conventionally cinematically significant moments, she hopes that they find such significance in the type of smaller, more everyday moments that pervade our lives. If she can get them to do so in a movie theatre, then they should be able to apply that same skill to their own lives as well, an undoubtedly worthwhile endeavor. We may often feel like our lives bear the superficially boring simplicity of her aforementioned facile point-and-shoot techniques and drab color palette, but seeing through such trappings to the rich texture underneath is an essential component of finding profound meaning both in realistic depictions of life and life itself.

This obviously stresses the importance of subtext, but it simply cannot be a replacement for actual text, as is the case with Certain Women. Reichardt understands that every moment of life – regardless of how routine – is worth exploring in art, but that’s not enough to justify doing nothing more in a movie than depicting life as it’s lived. Her flicks may help us identify the profundity in our own daily existence, but that doesn’t mean we necessarily want to watch our lives on screen. I revel in getting lost in intellectually-simulating subtext as much as any other cinephile, but I still need an engaging story to maintain my interest in exploring this subtext. None of the vignettes’ stories succeed in this regard; one of them is literally about a woman’s plight to move a bunch of rocks from someone else’s land to her own. There’s obviously a lot more brewing in the subtext of this tale, but again, I don’t know if my attention could ever be sustained by a story about moving fucking rocks.

To her credit, Michelle Williams – who plays this rock-moving woman – imbues her character with oodles of human depth, as does all of the other leads across the three vignettes, from Laura Dern to Kristen Stewart to lesser known actresses like Lily Gladstone. Art so steeped in subtext requires performers to subtly communicate what’s not explicitly stated but must be felt, and each of these actresses expertly project fully fleshed out, highly detailed, vast internal lives. For that reason, Reichardt will always be a beloved performer’s director.

But without any reason to care about the external stories of their lives, these characters come across as no more interesting than ordinary people – why should I bother trying to understand fictional people when my time could be better suited trying to understand the real people in my life that they’re supposed to represent, especially when they’re both equally sluggish? Slice-of-life fiction must walk the difficult line between being wholly realistic yet still being sufficiently distant enough from reality to comment upon it in some meaningful way. Certain Women ends up too far on the former side of that line.

I respect the hell out of Reichardt for continually challenging her audiences in such intentionally contemplative ways, but she should give them a few more reasons to care enough to embark on her artistic challenges…though truthfully, I do get the feeling that she achieves exactly what she sets out to accomplish. Given the fantastic reviews all of her films receive, clearly many people speak her unique brand of cinematic language – nothing feels like a Kelly Reichardt flick except a Kelly Reichardt flick, which is a compliment in itself –  and perhaps I’m just not destined to be one of them.

Even so, I will keep buying tickets for her movies because I’m a big believer in supporting filmmakers who strive to make their audiences cognitively work, which is more than can be said about 99% of the drivel populating movie theatres nowadays. Plus, it’s important to reward with our time and ticket money female writers and directors who break into an industry so lorded over by men that what it produces often feel like products of an old boys’ club. New, undeniably talented women like Ms. Reichardt are always needed to shake up that hegemony, and as such I will continue to see her movies even if I never end up thoroughly enjoying a single one. At times, our minds need to try to curate our artistic sensibilities in hopes that they will one day be in line. I may not have a taste for Reichardt’s flicks right now, but I will never question that she serves up celluloid meals we all should have in our cinematic diets…

2016 Movies

  1. The Treasure 
  2. In the Name of Women
  3. 13 Hours
  4. Anesthesia 
  5. Dirty Grandpa
  6. Ip Man 3
  7. Mojave
  8. Aferim!
  9. Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art
  10. The Finest Hours
  11. 2016 Oscar Nominated Shorts – Animated
  12. Kung Fu Panda 3
  13. Tumbledown
  14. Hail, Caesar!
  15. Jane Got a Gun
  16. 50 Shades of Black
  17. Rams
  18. Where to Invade Next
  19. Mountains May Depart
  20. The Choice
  21. A War
  22. Touched With Fire
  23. The Club
  24. How To Be Single
  25. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
  26. Zoolander 2
  27. Deadpool
  28. Cemetery of Splendor 
  29. Risen 
  30. Tricked
  31. Embrace of the Serpent
  32. Becoming Mike Nichols
  33. The Mermaid 
  34. The Wave
  35. The Brothers Grimsby 
  36. My Golden Days
  37. Knight of Cups
  38. Eddie the Eagle
  39. Gods of Egypt
  40. Creative Control 
  41. Midnight Special
  42. Zootopia
  43. Miles Ahead
  44. The VVitch: A New-England Folktale
  45. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
  46. Hello, My Name is Doris
  47. Krisha
  48. Mr. Right
  49. London Has Fallen
  50. Marguerite
  51. City of Gold
  52. The Invitation
  53. Born to be Blue
  54. The Clan
  55. The Measure of a Man
  56. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot 
  57. I Saw the Light
  58. The Jungle Book
  59. Hardcore Henry 
  60. 10 Cloverfield Lane
  61. April and the Extraordinary World
  62. Tale of Tales
  63. Green Room
  64. The Dark Horse
  65. Louder than Bombs
  66. Demolition 
  67. Everybody Wants Some!!
  68. The Boss
  69. Remember 
  70. The Meddler
  71. Keanu 
  72. Francofonia
  73. Eye in the Sky
  74. Hockney
  75. Dheepan
  76. A Bigger Splash
  77. The First Monday in May
  78. Captain America: Civil War
  79. A Hologram for the King
  80. The Family Fang
  81. Dark Horse
  82. Barbershop: The Next Cut
  83. The Lobster
  84. Maggie’s Plan
  85. Chevalier
  86. The Witness
  87. Weiner
  88. Money Monster
  89. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising
  90. X-Men: Apocalypse 
  91. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
  92. De Palma
  93. The Nice Guys
  94. Love and Friendship
  95. The Wailing
  96. The Shallows
  97. The Conjuring 2
  98. The BFG
  99. Don’t Think Twice
  100. Little Men
  101. Central Intelligence
  102. Finding Dory
  103. Ghostbusters
  104. Nine Lives
  105. The Legend of Tarzan
  106. Star Trek Beyond
  107. Cafe Society
  108. Sausage Party
  109. The Secret Life of Pets
  110. Pete’s Dragon
  111. Bad Moms
  112. Hell or High Water
  113. Mia Madre
  114. Captain Fantastic
  115. War Dogs
  116. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
  117. Kubo and the Two Strings
  118. Suicide Squad
  119. Complete Unknown 
  120. Indignation
  121. White Girl 
  122. Goat 
  123. Denial 
  124. The Birth of a Nation
  125. Deepwater Horizon
  126. Queen of Katwe
  127. The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years
  128. Snowden
  129. The Girl on the Train
  130. The Neon Demon 
  131. Tower
  132. Michael Moore in Trumpland
  133. Train to Busan
  134. Don’t Breathe
  135. Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience
  136. The Magnificent 7
  137. Certain Women

Best Movies of 2016

  • Everybody Wants Some!!
  • Hail, Caesar!
  • Hardcore Henry
  • Hell or High Water
  • Knight of Cups
  • The Lobster
  • Midnight Special
  • The Neon Demon
  • Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
  • Sausage Party
  • Tale of Tales
  • The VVitch: A New-England Folktale
  • Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience
  • Weiner


  • The Accountant
  • American Honey
  • American Pastoral
  • Aquarius
  • Christine
  • Gimme Danger
  • Godzilla Resurgence
  • The Handmaiden
  • Inferno
  • Into the Inferno
  • Jack Reacher
  • A Man Called Ove
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
  • Moonlight
  • Ouija: Origin of Evil
  • Sully
  • Under the Shadow

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