An ode to Montana, Certain Women is informed by the majestic yet barren state known as Big Sky Country. Based on three short stories from Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, a collection by locally born writer Maile Meloy, it is a quiet, female-focused triptych of tales that keeps its scope quite modest.
The sixth feature by Kelly Reichardt focuses on alienation and connection against the backdrop of day-to-day life in the mountainous terrain. In the first of the lightly interlocking stories, Laura Dern plays Laura, a lawyer trying to appease her irate client, Fuller (Jared Harris), a blue-collar worker who spoiled his chance for full compensation for a work injury after accepting a quick settlement eight months prior. As his indignation grows, he sees no alternative but to demand his employer’s case file while pointing a gun at a hostage in the office. The scene is set up like a tense thriller but plays out in a muted, realistic way.
The next story has Michelle Williams, as Gina, transporting her privileged, California-professional lifestyle to the open land of the West to build a country house. She and her husband, Ryan (James Le Gros), are at odds trying to convince an elderly acquaintance, Albert (René Auberjonois), to relinquish his stockpile of sandstone so that they can use it along with other “authentic” materials in the construction. With charm and guile, she presses her way.
The third narrative follows Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a young ranch hand who audits an adult education course taught by Beth (Kristen Stewart), whose self-absorption keeps her from recognizing Jamie’s overtures of friendship. In a grand gesture, Jamie rides a horse to school to transport Beth to the local diner after class. When Beth abruptly quits teaching due to her considerable commute, Jamie drives all night to find her. In the film’s moving emotional climax, Jamie puts her heart and soul on the line.
Reichardt’s exquisitely crafted films depict characters fully enmeshed with their environments. In Certain Women, she leaves Oregon where she has situated four films, beginning with her breakout, Old Joy, in 2006. On location in and around Bozeman and Livingston, her frequent cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (a protégé of the late Harris Savides) highlights the beauty of nature—horses feeding, mountainous horizons, the night sky above a highway. To serve the quotidian narrative, he avoids “beauty shots” that would interrupt the restrained tone.
Fine acting elevates the otherwise slight film to one that is noteworthy. Following Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, Williams teams up with Reichardt for the third time and is virtually the face of her films, whether as a vagrant, a pioneer, or an executive. Stewart continues her run of intriguing characters in independent films, including the recent Clouds of Sils Maria, for which she won multiple accolades. From Blue Velvet to Citizen Ruth to Jurassic Park, Dern’s lifetime of disparate roles adds heft to the exasperated lawyer she plays. And with her broad smile and wellspring of emotion, Native American newcomer Gladstone shines as the lonely horse rancher.