Viewers who aren't trained in the art of arthouse (or the films of writer-director-editor Kelly Reichardt) might complain that "nothing happens" throughout the running time of "Certain Women." Indeed, most of the incidents in these three cinematic poems are mostly internal. The moments of drama aren't sweeping, but instead barely registered moments of pain, heartbreak and isolation in the eyes of four excellent actresses.
Based on the short story collection, "Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It," by Maile Meloy, "Certain Women" follows three lightly intertwining stories about four women across small-town Montana. The stories don't inform each other, other than thematically, but they still feel like part of a very compelling whole.
The first story follows Laura Dern as a harried lawyer whose determined client (Jared Harris) was injured at his workplace and denied compensation through a legal loophole. He hounds her about it so relentlessly and things escalate so quickly that she learns what a truly desperate man will do.
The second short features actress Michelle Williams playing a successful woman building a dream house in the country with her depressed, cheating husband and sullen daughter. An old and mentally fading man in the area has a pile of vintage sandstone she would like to use to build her home. Will she take the sandstone? It depends on whether she will allow herself to always be the bad guy.
In the third story, a lonely ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) wanders into a night class being taught by an exhausted young lawyer (Kristen Stewart). Even though the class is completely useless to her, the ranch hand continues to go, twice a week, just to have dinner with the teacher after class. Watching these two disparate strangers try to connect becomes a slowly escalating exercise in heartbreak.
Kelly Reichardt might not be a name that is very familiar outside of the arthouse world, but since 2006 she has made a solid string of quiet masterpieces. "Old Joy" took a serene trip with Bonnie "Prince" Billy into the Cascades. "Wendy and Lucy" is an emotionally brutal film about hitting rock bottom, that plumbed unseen depths in Michelle Williams. "Meek's Cutoff" takes place in the High Desert, following an ill-fated trip down the Oregon Trail. Most recently, "Night Moves" follows three environmentalists who plot to destroy a dam.
"Certain Women" sits with Reichardt's earlier work perfectly, another example of her profound talent for capturing the tiny moments in people's lives. Each character in "Certain Women" is alone, whether physically or emotionally isolated.
"Certain Women" just skims along the surface of true loneliness, but it's deep enough of a glance to carry an uncommon weight. The film might require some patience, but don't we all sometimes?
Dir. Kelly Reichardt
Now playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX