The best way to describe Kelly Reichardt’s new film “Certain Women” is literary fiction made visual.
Watching the images appear on screen, it’s easy to imagine how the words were formed on the page, the way the surrounding Montana environment is described.
This isn’t surprising since the film is an adaptation of three short stories by Guggenheim fellow Maile Meloy (older sister of Decemberists head Colin Meloy), comprising three sections unrelated to each other save each being set in Livingston. While the resulting film’s steady pacing and obtuseness may turn viewers off, those sticking with it will find fantastic performances and finely tuned observations about normal people going about their day to day lives.
The first section follows Laura Dern as lawyer Laura Wells (first seen sleeping with the husband of the second section’s lead), as she tries to help a client suffering from a workplace injury (“Mad Men” star Jared Harris) with his case. When it goes nowhere, he resorts to taking a fellow employee hostage in what may be the lowest stakes hostage situation ever shown on film.
That’s not to say it’s boring or that nothing happens; Reichardt just doesn’t seem to have any interest in artificially hyping up the drama of the situation, instead sending Laura in to try and talk him out of it. Dern is wonderful here, projecting an image of calm into an absurdly dangerous situation while Harris (sporting a pretty good American accent) manages to wring sympathy for a character thrown a lot of bad chances by life.
Section two is among the most purely emotional of the three, a necessity given its rather short plot: a mother (Michelle Williams), attempts to get her older friend Albert (Rene Auberjonois) to sell his pile of sandstone he’s had for years so she and her husband can build a house.
He proceeds to do so only after some nudging from her husband and a monologue about its origins. It’s among the many instances of a man not listening to a woman, and though Williams manages to express her conflicting emotions on her face, for some a scene like this might be too elliptical and halting to get on board with.
It almost could’ve been it’s own short film, given a little more expansion, but Reichardt does her best to make it entrancing and she doesn’t push her points too hard (she really doesn’t push any points hard at all, but it’s not too subtle that you could miss much).
The final section follows a ranch hand (newcomer Lily Gladstone, in what is sure to be a breakout role) who walks into a class on education law taught by a lawyer portrayed by Kristen Stewart and proceeds to talk with her after at a diner for a series of nights.
Their conversations feel wonderfully real, with just a touch off as you ponder what exactly is drawing the rancher to this woman. Stewart has been on a roll of sorts lately, finally breaking free of the conceptions formed through her residency at the “Twilight” saga; just in the past two years she’s been in acclaimed performances in “Clouds of Sils-Maria” (becoming the only American to win the Cesar for Best Supporting Actress), “Cafe Society” and the upcoming “Personal Shopper.”
She may be the best performance in a film full of them, using just the right amount of doubt and apprehension while still coming across as warm and friendly. The segment dances around the central question of why the rancher is so obsessed with her, a thing that gains a small bit of insight when you learn that the character was changed from being male in the original story.
The beauty of it is that Reichardt leaves just enough open for you to guess at what she wants, and the result is still heartbreaking no matter what you think she’s after. Reichardt excels at making each story empathetic and digging deep into the lives and feelings of these characters, no matter how short they’re on screen.
The way Reichardt (who’s edited all of her films since 2006’s “Old Joy”) paces the film by shooting mainly unmoving static shots may be too slow for some, and it’s not always clear what exactly the stories have that links them thematically. But for those willing to dive in, “Certain Women” provides a bevy of fantastic performances, supported by the beautifully desolate Montana winterscape courtesy of frequent cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, and perhaps the best depictions of ordinary lives you’ll see on screen.