Few contemporary filmmakers can do quite as much with quiet as Kelly Reichardt. Superficially empty soundscapes are layered so intricately with the rustle of nature, the brooding of weather and the breathing of preoccupied people that her films come to seem positively noisy to a sympathetic ear. So it is in the marvelous “Certain Women,” where the storytelling has a similarly latent impact. Separating the spare narratives of several disparate Montana women — a morally stressed lawyer, a nest-building mother, a lonely ranch hand — waiting indefinitely for their worlds to fall into place, it’s a peculiarly riveting examination of the lives lived when even their owners aren’t looking. Crafted with Reichardt’s customary calico-textured beauty and expertly performed by such hand-picked ensemble players as Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams and Laura Dern, this unapologetically open-ended slow burn probably won’t convert many viewers to Reichardt’s softly-softly sensibility, but it’s among her richest, most refined works.
Like a number of Reichardt’s previous films, “Certain Women” has its roots in the short-story format — one naturally conducive to her flair for teasing larger lives and deeper longings out of passing everyday incidents. Her literary inspiration this time is Montana-based author Maile Meloy, with Reichardt’s elegantly apportioned script drawn from her stories “Tome,” “Native Sandstone” and “Travis B.” The director’s chosen title, however, is at once calculatedly vague and mournfully ironic. Read one way, “Certain Women” implies a kind of unnamed randomness to Reichardt’s chosen female subjects, as if any number of adjacent women’s lives might have been equally worthy of the film’s attention. Read another, it’s perhaps a gentle joke at the expense of characters for whom certainty is in achingly short supply: It’s hardly a spoiler to say that none of the pic’s delicate strands hinges on anything like a drastic dramatic decision.
Viewers accustomed to the knotty “Short Cuts” school of multiple short-story adaptation may take a while to acclimatize to the film’s patient, clean-edged structure, which opts neither for explicit chaptering nor for intricate braiding of the three stories in question. Revelation-concerned narrative splicing has become such a familiar feature of the U.S. independent filmmaking scene that it’s positively bracing to see Reichardt — also acting, with graceful discernment, as her own editor — unfold her mini-dramas one at a time, letting the sometimes faint connections between them emerge with little fanfare, revisiting their principal characters only in the final reels. If Paul Haggis’s “Crash” literalized the idea of storytelling as automotive collision, “Certain Women” prefers to let its vehicles pass each other with an acknowledging wave — apt enough for a film in which human contact doesn’t come easily to the yearning, inward-looking women at its center.
To describe the film’s individual segments on paper is not to do them many favors, even when they include such notionally hefty events as an armed hostage situation — as staged by Reichardt, returning to her trademark tender humanism after the icy genre stylings of “Night Moves,” surely the lowest-key such standoff in cinematic history. The first story centers on small-town lawyer Laura (Dern), introduced in the postcoital stages of an afternoon tryst with a married man — whose identity lends passive emotional complexity to a later section. Focus shifts to a legal case that has become something of a thorn in her side, as construction laborer Fuller (Jared Harris, devastatingly ragged) obstinately pursues an injury claim that a legal technicality prevents him from winning. Taking little heed of her counsel — because she’s a woman, Laura concludes with the weariness of experience — he implicates her in a more violent course of action.
Cut to Gina (Williams), discontentedly wrapping up a rural camping weekend with her husband, Ryan (James Le Gros), and perma-sullen teenage daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier). Fatigued by tetchy family life, she pours her efforts into constructing a symbol of idealized domestic unity: a woodland weekend cottage that she intends to build, with preciously modish integrity, entirely from repurposed native materials. Yet this ostensibly noble goal entails a degree of selfish manipulation, as she and Ryan press on doddery family friend (Albert) to sell them the reserve of vintage sandstone on his property.
Drily satirizing the opportunistic exploitation of tradition in the American heartland, Gina’s story is the most coolly oblique of the three. What follows is the most bittersweetly open-hearted, as a nameless Native American horse rancher (the revelatory Lily Gladstone) aimlessly seeks a personal connection at an adult education center. Stumbling by chance into a class on educational law for teachers, she develops an intense but innocent fascination with its young tutor, Beth (Stewart), a socially awkward law graduate who lives many towns over. The two develop a mutually bemused rapport over post-class diner meals, though when Beth abruptly quits the job, the terms of their new, ambiguously platonic romance become harder to parse.
There are no tidily concrete thematic ties to be found between these slender, piquant slices of life, though all touch on the generalities of human alienation and solitude for which E.M. Forster issued the poetic prescription to “only connect.” As with Reichardt’s more streamlined miniatures, regional detail accounts for much of the film’s lingering resonance, as her characters are molded by (and, in some cases, rail against) the landscape they inhabit. “Certain Women” is the director’s fifth film to be set against the pregnant skies and cornbread-colored grasslands of America’s Northwest — painted with misty iridescence on 16mm by Reichardt’s reliably brilliant cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt — and there’s a not-wholly-rueful sense here of indigenous tradition and etiquette passing into history. All the women here, however put-upon, are independent in ways that defy their staid surroundings.
Though this is arguably the most illustrious ensemble Reichardt has ever had to hand, the pic’s performance style is as casually organic and democratic as in any of her more scrappily cast early projects. There’s complete onscreen parity, for example, between a relative newcomer like Gladstone and a megawatt star like Stewart — both unobtrusively superb — while Williams, in her third collaboration with Reichardt, underplays with terse modesty. Playing most recognizably to a star persona is Dern, if only because said persona has been built on the kind of creased, empathetic decency that makes her a Reichardt natural.