In the first of Certain Women’s three barely connected tales, Laura (Laura Dern), an attorney, takes a disgruntled client, Fuller (Jared Harris), to a legal expert who assures him he doesn’t have a case. It’s the same opinion Laura had given him, but on hearing the news, Fuller quietly crumples in his chair, finally accepting what he’s spent months fighting to ignore. Laura, meanwhile, grimaces at a different realization: that Fuller needed to hear the news from a man to believe it. Kelly Reichardt’s newest film, an adaptation of three stories by Maile Meloy, dwells in those subtle moments, the unspoken tensions that build to unexpected, sometimes painful truths.
It’d be easy to dismiss Certain Women as a minor-key film, a tiny indie about nothing in particular, especially because of its triptych format. It moves almost gracelessly from one story to the next, the three tales linked by the spare landscapes of Montana but very little else. But like all of Reichardt’s work (her previous films include small, humane dramas like Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves), it lingers. Certain Women is a film where a missed opportunity to connect, or a brief, surprising flash of empathy, feels crucial enough to pore over days after seeing it. And it touches on stories about female protagonists that feel too often neglected even in the realm of indie cinema.
The first story has the clearest sense of plot. Laura contends with Fuller’s dissatisfaction over a workplace injury and tries to keep him from resorting to violence, as he makes vague threats. As things escalate, Laura has to remain a calming presence and an understanding mother figure to this increasingly demented man. Reichardt captures this burden of being a female professional in a male universe perfectly without ever pointing out the passive sexism. This isn’t a polemical film, but its naturalism is so consistent that Reichardt invites the audience to notice every detail. Dern is typically fabulous in the role, registering each microaggression and shrugging it off.
The intense drama of the first story recalls Reichardt’s Night Moves, a drama of environmental terrorism that was far more plot-driven than the rest of her oeuvre. But unlike that film, where her emphasis on low-key conversation struggled to contend with a very high-stakes plot about a bombing gone wrong, Laura’s story never escalates into truly shocking territory. Certain Women wisely keeping its focus on her relationship with Fuller and how it morphs from empathy, to pity, to fury as he decides to take matters into his own hands.
The second story is perhaps the slightest, and follows a marital conflict that plays out around a real-estate deal. Gina (Michelle Williams) and her husband, Ryan (James LeGros), are a couple weathering a rough patch while trying to build a new home; the audience is given some details about their difficulties, but minimal context. Reichardt invites the viewer to focus in on the tiniest dynamics, and it’s an undeniable struggle at times—Certain Women is not a long film, but if there’s a moment when Reichardt’s hyper-realism drags, it’s during this arc.
Still, it feels inextricably linked to Laura’s tale, especially as the man Gina is negotiating with (Rene Auberjonois) focuses only on Ryan during their meetings, signaling an unconscious comfort with a more antiquated way of life. The Montana setting seems most crucial to this middle portion. Ryan and Gina are in a place so open and undeveloped that they can literally rebuild their lives from nothing. At the same time, the idea of change and progress in a more old-fashioned part of America takes on new weight. Reichardt’s camera lets the sparse, unforgiving quality of the landscape overwhelm the viewer here in a sharp shift from Laura’s story, which mostly takes place inside oppressively drab office buildings.
The final tale is easily the most powerful, featuring Kristen Stewart as the kind of muted, inscrutable ingénue that’s become her forte as an indie film star. Clad in a mustard-yellow sweater vest and attempting to teach education law at a night school to a bunch of disinterested teachers, Beth (Stewart) is both timid and striking. She’s the kind of self-effacing introvert whose inner life seems a fascinating mystery. At night school, she draws the attention of an even more introverted student, a Native American rancher named Jamie.
Jamie is played by Lily Gladstone, an unknown in a cast of great actresses who gives the most dynamic performance of the film: a portrait of suppressed desire and emotion that gains weight over the closing minutes of the film. Reichardt spends much of Certain Women’s running time focusing on characters jaded by years of quiet misogyny and frustration; Jamie and Beth’s story feels more hopeful. This is a character for whom so many avenues of life feel unfairly closed off, so there’s a discreet joy in watching her suddenly try to open them up by quietly pursuing Beth, and equal anguish when things don’t proceed quite as she plans. As the film’s best tale, it sums up the worth of Reichardt’s work: Certain Women is unabashedly feminist, telling stories of both hope and devastation, ones which swerve between surprising optimism and depressing reality with the same deft power.