Starring Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Laura Dern. Rating unavailable
Writer-director Kelly Reichardt favours incident over drama and image over words—sometimes at the expense of both humour and narrative engagement. Her previous films featuring Michelle Williams, the sparely contemporary Wendy and Lucy and the period western Meek’s Cutoff, were both primarily scripted by frequent collaborator Jon Raymond (who also penned the HBO take on Mildred Pierce). Reichardt seems to have found her own, warmer voice in Certain Women.
Here, she has woven together characters loosely drawn from the terse short stories of Maile Meloy, who (in the collections Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It) brought a sharp-eyed, Raymond Carver–esque approach to tales set in or near her native Helena, Montana. There are tangential connections in the film’s episodic structure, but they are often more geographic than personal.
In the initial segment, a stressed-out Montana lawyer (Laura Dern) is struggling to help an industrial-accident victim (a superb Jared Harris) who settled too soon with his negligent employer. The lawyer is sleeping—well, not sleeping, exactly—with a local man (a bearded James Le Gros) who, it turns out, is married to Williams’s character and is struggling with a teenage daughter (Sara Rodier) unhappy living in the tent where their new house is being built. The linchpin of this sequence is a visit to an old codger with some extra limestone sitting around, thus allowing a beautifully modulated, one-scene performance by TV and stage veteran Rene Auberjonois.
Elsewhere, Kristen Stewart plays a recent law graduate who has to drive many hours to hold an educational-rights class for small-town schoolteachers. But the tender focus here is really on a soft-spoken indigenous woman (cast standout Lily Gladstone) who puts aside her chores caring for horses at a nearby stable when she becomes accidentally smitten by the scattered newcomer.
Some paths cross and others diverge in this collection of small events, all seen through the refracted, winter-light lens of Christopher Blauvelt, who also shot several of Reichardt’s other films. (Jeff Grace’s spare guitar music is another plus.) The movie’s snow-dampened pace and resistance to sensationalism could make this a challenging sit for some viewers. But those who surrender to its compassionate take on survivors of their own harsh hinterlands will be richly rewarded.