Over her 20-year career, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt has carved out a singular, determinedly off-center space in the cinematic landscape, working in sometimes epic scale (“Meek’s Cutoff”) and in intimate chamber pieces (“Old Joy”), but always with a quietly observant, compassionate eye on human-scale foibles and dynamics.
Recently, Reichardt has sustained a profitable collaboration with the screenwriter Jon Raymond, achieving a kind of mind meld of taste and sensibility that has resulted in some fine movies. (In addition to “Meek’s Cutoff” and “Old Joy,” they made “Wendy and Lucy” and “Night Moves” together). But for her newest film, “Certain Women,” Reichardt took on writing duties, adapting the short stories of Maile Meloy into a typically Reichardt-ian portrait of ambivalence and solitude, albeit with less narrative momentum than in previous outings.
A triptych of subtly interlocking stories, “Certain Women” features some of the year’s best performances: Laura Dern plays Laura, a lawyer living in tiny Livingston, Montana, where nothing much happens outside your random, everyday hostage situation; Michelle Williams plays Gina, who is building a home on a scenic patch of land outside town; and Kristen Stewart plays Elizabeth, a young lawyer in training who has agreed to teach a weekly night course on educational law in Belfry, several miles away.
Just how Laura, Gina and Beth’s live intersect (or don’t) gives “Certain Women” an intriguing, if wispy, whiff of mystery. But mostly Reichardt is interested in portraiture, and how character is revealed through the small, sometimes extraordinary, actions each woman takes to cope with her own sense of stifling limitation. Laura’s story is by far the most incident-filled, as she’s drawn into the desperate acts of one of her clients. Beth nurses nascent ambitions, which makes her all the more fascinating to the shy, bored ranch hand who drops in on one of her classes and becomes quietly smitten.
That cowgirl in the sand (and snow) is played in an impressive breakout turn by newcomer Lily Gladstone, who infuses the lonely young woman she portrays with heartbreaking vulnerability and hope. It’s Williams who delivers the most memorable performance of “Certain Women,” surprisingly. (Not because she isn’t always superb, but because her character is the least rounded out.)
In the role of an alienated wife and mother who has sublimated her thwarted ambitions into the home she’s building, Williams projects any number of emotions over the course of her brief chapter. They range from her resigned grief at being shut out by her moody teenage daughter and distant husband to shrewd self-interest when she angles for a pile of choice sandstone on the property of a confused elderly man played by René Auberjonois.
Like “Aquarius,” also opening this weekend, “Certain Women” is about women’s fraught, potent relationships to their environments — in this case, the vast expanse of the contemporary American West and the far more pinched, constricting backdrop of others’ expectations. In some ways, “Certain Women” feels like too little. The viewer wants more from each of these brief stories, and we instinctively crave some kind of cathartic confrontation or union toward the end. Instead, Reichardt lets her flawed, enigmatic heroines be, allowing them to keep struggling, persevering and relishing what can sometimes pass for tiny victories.
You know a filmmaker is in supreme command of her medium when what she creates feels less like a movie than a candid glimpse of ongoing lives that will continue to play out long after the lights have come on.