“Certain Women” is a quiet, introspective film about three women living and existing in a frozen Montana town. Does it sound dull? Sure. But on the screen it plays out like a slow-burning folk song you could sit with for hours. It’s perhaps writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s finest work, understated and elegant and well worth a trip to the cinema to slip into the exquisitely literary vignettes of Beth (Kristen Stewart), Gina (Michelle Williams) and Laura (Laura Dern).
Adapted from Maile Meloy’s short stories, Reichardt crafts her own short story-like structure to “Certain Women.” There are some tangentially connecting threads, but for the most part they exist in different orbits even in and around the small, sleepy and picturesquely desolate Livingston, Montana.
We meet Laura (Dern) first. She’s dressing after a mid-day fling with Ryan (James Le Gros) that doesn’t seem to have been fulfilling enough for the effort. Back at her office (she’s a lawyer) she’s dismayed to find out that a needy client (Jared Harris) has been waiting for her. She explains to him for what seems like the millionth time that he has no recourse for his on-the-job injury because he’s already taken a settlement. But he wants a second opinion and they drive to Billings to meet with an older male lawyer who tells him the exact same thing. It’s only then that he accepts it.
“It would be so lovely to think if I were a man, people would listen and say ‘OK.’ Ah, it’d be so restful,” Laura sighs at one point.
That sentiment, a bone-deep exhaustion of merely existing and surviving and still maintaining your wants and desires and agency, flows into the next segment about Gina (Williams) and her family, made up of a bratty teenage daughter and an ineffectual husband, Ryan. It’s the same guy we’ve already seen engaging in the extramarital dalliance with Laura. Both undermine her at every turn in familiar ways. Gina, small and platinum blonde, maintains a steely demeanor throughout it all. These are just the facts of her surroundings, and you sense that they’ve been rotten for a while.
Reichardt and Williams, who excel in collaboration for films like “Wendy and Lucy” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” have the ability to make even a conversation about buying sandstone from an elderly man transfixing and deep. It’s a microcosm for Gina’s entire worth. As with all of Reichardt’s films, the gems are in the smallest moments — the half smiles, the non-reactions and the silences between two people barely connecting.
That’s more heartbreakingly explored in the third and most obtuse story, which brings us to Jamie (Lily Gladstone) and Beth (Stewart). Jamie, sturdy and sweet, works on a ranch tending to horses in cold isolation. One night she stumbles on a class at the local high school on education law. Jamie becomes fascinated with the jittery instructor Beth (Stewart), a beguiling outsider who travels four hours each way two times a week to teach.
They end up having dinner together at the local diner where Jamie just sits and smiles and listens while Beth eats and monologues about her troubles. It becomes their routine week after week. Jamie barely ever speaks and Beth barely seems to notice her, but this non-relationship has become lifeblood for Jamie.
As an audience member, it can be painful to watch and know that Beth just doesn’t care, but Jamie’s smile doesn’t fade somehow. Maybe it’s nice to just have another human around. But maybe she just knows something that we don’t. In fact, with all of these modern frontierswomen, I’m sure of it.
Certain Women,” an IFC Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some language.” Running time: 107 minutes. Four stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr