Sometimes, in those rare, remarkable occasions, you know right off that a film is great. From the first shot of Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women—a grainy Montana landscape grayed by winter, with hills so soft in they could be painted on, and a train arcing its way towards the camera—it is clear this film is special. Based on stories by author Maile Meloy, the film takes the unusual form of a sequence of three stories, all set in small town Montana, and each foregrounded on a woman and her conflicted yearning.
Laura Dern is a lawyer whose client (Jared Harris) in a dead-end malfeasance lawsuit gets increasingly dejected and unhinged at the same time her love affair with an anonymous man—played by James Le Gros and introduced in the film’s opening scene in an homage to Psycho’s work break rendezvous—falters. In the second tale, Michelle Williams sneaks a cigarette in Lululemon running gear on a nature trail, returned to her family’s deluxe campground, and with her down-to-earth but somewhat apathetic husband (Le Gros, re-appearing) continues a discussion with a local to buy a pile of historic stone with which the couple can build their second home. The final story follows seasonal horse tender Lily Gladstone as she goes about her solitary work and shows up at a local adult education class out of curiosity and loneliness. It is being taught by Kirsten Stewart’s haggard greenhorn lawyer, moonlighting from several towns over as an instructor, and Gladstone, drawn to her, invites the distracted and exhausted young woman along after each class for a chat over a diner meal.
In each story—connected causally, with Le Gros subtly wavering between Dern and Williams in the background of their two stories, and Gladstone eventually looking for Stewart at Dern’s law firm—we see Reichardt’s exquisite skill realized: a breathtaking precision that captures the reality, character, and emotional tenor of her people and their world in nearly every shot, and builds up this observation and insight with economy and beauty. (This is realized in no small part by Christopher Blauvelt’s gorgeous, restrained Super 16 mm photography.) With the exception of Gladstone’s lone rancher, these certain women are actually doing much better in their lives than Reichardt’s Oregonian outcasts she has so movingly introduced us to in the past in such films as Old Joy and Night Moves; yet they each are united in a common feeling, emotional and existential, of just being on the outside, of being held on the cusp of what would make them happy and fulfilled.
Dern’s story cleverly displaces her bumpy romance—briefly suggested—with a pocket-sized but deeply felt relationship study between herself and her distraught client. She is patient and calm in the face of his exasperation, yet something of his despair seems to echo in her. Williams’ story is a flashpoint for the stumble this otherwise impeccable filmmaker sometimes takes, of making her political point too on the nose. The film is already suffused with the frontier landscape of westerns, and the story of a yuppie re-claiming Montana’s past for herself (the stones belonged to an old schoolhouse) clangs a bit obviously. Yet this story is shot with the same detail and loveliness as the rest, and it continues Reichardt’s wonderful collaboration with the actress, re-imagining Williams not as the social outcast of Wendy and Lucy but as the kind of person who may never have noticed that earlier, more destitute and desperate incarnation of herself.
The final tale works best at integrating the film’s desire to connect across the landscape echoes of America’s bygone history with the smaller, sadder lives in the present in these same epic spaces. The attraction—like that between the two men in Old Joy—of the kind-faced Gladstone to the grouchy Stewart is marvelous in its ambiguity: it is sexual, certainly, but the attraction is also professional, friendly and social. This figure of Montana’s past, spending all her time as a ranch hand, encountering this other young American woman who is clawing herself up—with remarkable lack of charisma, I might add: Reichardt and Stewart make her character a bit unpleasant, which pays off in a bracing final scene between the two women—is a tenuous but moving connection. That Stewart may eventually turn into Dern's lawyer, for better or for worse, continues the film’s quiet engagement of American lives lived not only through specific spaces but through time, and is one of many subtle nuances evoked by this feature film unexpectedly made of short stories. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more quietly rich, or more obviously beautiful film this year.