Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” is quietly brilliant, aesthetically mundane,and emotionally tumultuous. For nearly two hours, we watch the lives of four women (barely) intersect in a series of moments that, at first glance, seem to have only modest importance. Yet by the time the Montana-set film comes to an end, we understand — even if the characters do not — just how vitally important these events have been. It’s a world of uncertainty, and it’s wonderfully enthralling.
The power of “Certain Women” is a testament to Reichardt, the writer-director of modest, powerful indies like “Old Joy,” “Wendy and Lucy” and “Meek’s Cutoff.” There’s no filmmaker doing more with less, and “Certain Women” is her finest, most resonant work yet.
Following a gorgeous opening-credits shot of a train slowly rumbling into the frame comes the first of the film’s three vignettes. Featuring the always underrated Laura Dern as a small-town attorney dealing with a difficult client named Fuller (Jared Harris of “Mad Men”), it’s a strangely slow-moving story that culminates in one of the more somber, ho-hum hostage situations in cinema.
Next is the tale of Gina Lewis, a wife and mother nicely played by Michelle Williams. Gina and her shoulder-shrugging husband Ryan (James LeGros) are in the process of building a new house while raising their surly teenage daughter.
Gina and Ryan visit an elderly acquaintance named Albert (René Auberjonois) with the hope of buying the sandstone piled up on his property. Gina hopes to use this at the new house; as Ryan puts it, “Gina wants this new house to be authentic.”
That’s the story, really. However, the deliberately paced meeting between Gina, Ryan and Albert is fascinating for its verbal sparseness. The moment in which the couple pick up the purchased sandstone is downright haunting.
While the Dern and Williams stories are uniquely involving, it is the last vignette that lingers. It stars the strongest young actor in film, Kristen Stewart, and a relative unknown named Lily Gladstone. (Don’t believe that description of K-Stew? See “Still Alice,” Olivier Assayas’s “Clouds of Sils Maria” or Assayas’s 2017 ghost story “Personal Shopper.”)
In a breakthrough performance, Gladstone plays a rancher named Jamie who lives a solitary existence among the horses. One evening, she stumbles into a community education law class being taught by a young attorney named Beth (Stewart).
It’s clear that Beth is a new to teaching, but her obvious unease is endearing to Jamie. The lawyer-teacher drives four hours each way to get to the Tuesday through Thursday class, and her situation is startling for its gloomy believability. Beth took the teaching gig while still in law school, concerned about her student loans. She then got a job at a law firm, but was already set to teach.
Knowing no one, Beth asks Jamie for a quick dining recommendation, and the diner becomes a post-class ritual. Reichardt lingers on small, telling details, and she’s helped by Stewart’s talent for making every moment count. She somehow makes cutting a burger in half seem fascinating.
It is clear that Jamie has fallen for Beth, and this makes her offer of a horse ride to dinner stunningly romantic. Scenes like this cement this story’s status as the finest of Reichardt’s career. This modest exploration of longing and loneliness is simple, heartbreaking and unforgettable.
When Beth suddenly quits, Jamie sets out to find her, and the conclusion of this vignette is predictably sad. All three tales are drawn together (to some point) in the final few minutes, to a satisfying degree.
The four women seek connection and hope, yet all four are stuck in nearly impossible situations. Their lives are relentlessly believable, and their situations are chronicled with Reichardt’s trademark eye for quiet desperation. Her “Certain Women” is a masterpiece, and in its final story, especially, we have a low-key, thwarted romance for the ages.
Produced by “Carol” director Todd Haynes and based on short stories from author Maile Meloy, “Certain Women” is overwhelmingly powerful. Rarely has a film so successfully highlighted the inner lives of the type of female characters so often ignored in movies.
4 stars (out of four)
Starring: Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Lily Gladstone.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Running time: 107 minutes
Rated: R for some language.
The lowdown: The lives of four women intersect in small-town America, where each is imperfectly blazing a trail.