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'Certain Women' Is Another Gem From One Of Indie Cinema's Best

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 21, 2016 3:00PM

Michelle Williams in "Certain Women." (Photo by Nicole Rivelli. Courtesy of IFC Films.)

As quiet and unhurried as any of her previous work—if not more so—Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women will test the patience of some viewers while casting a spell over others.

Count me as spellbound. One of the great artists of contemporary American cinema, Reichardt (Meek's Cutoff, Old Joy) finds unvarnished beauty in life's lost moments, dissatisfactions and heartbreaks, and this is one of her very best films.

The three intersecting stories of Certain Women center on Montana women who are not having an easy time of it. Lawyer Laura (Laura Dern) can't get respect from the man she's having an affair with (James Le Gros) or the troubled, ailing client who won't accept her sound legal advice (Jared Harris). When the latter goes off the deep end and takes a hostage, it's less a crisis than a sadly comical reminder of how undervalued Laura is. The police barely give her safety a second thought as they strap a bulletproof vest to her and send her in to do their job.

Meanwhile, Gina (Michelle Williams) tries to go about the business of planning her dream house even as she feels the remoteness of her husband (Le Gros), the teenage disdain of her daughter, and the sexist disregard of an isolated neighbor who may be in the early stages of dementia. Life just doesn't seem to want to cooperate with her.

In a more gentle way, the same is true for ranch hand Jamie (Lily Gladstone). There's not much stress in her life, but not much company either, outside of the cattle she tends and an adorable corgi who chases her as she rides around the ranch. In her tiny town, meeting anyone romantically would be difficult, but especially another woman. But when harried, recent law school grad Beth (Kristen Stewart) comes to town to teach a class, Jamie is smitten. Each week's class becomes an occasion.

Any of these stories could be played for melodramatic effect, but for Reichardt (adapting three short stories by Montana native Maile Meloy), plot takes a backseat to concentrated observations of behavior and environment. The deliberate pacing of her work can take a while to draw you in, and compared to Certain Women, her more suspense-driven previous feature, Night Moves, seems almost like an action film. But here, as in her other films, the patient pace pays off with an emotional honesty and intelligence few filmmakers can equal.

Location is always central to Reichardt's work. Her films mainly take place outdoors (most in the American northwest), but Reichardt doesn't revel in the glories of nature, a la Terrence Malick. She presents the great outdoors in a way that is simultaneously both immersive and somehow oddly distant—a familiar yet not-always welcoming terrain for her largely solitary characters.

In Certain Women, those characters are conveyed with great depth of feeling by a first-rate cast. All three of her top-billed actresses (Dern, Williams and Stewart) are terrific, with Williams—now a veteran of three Reichardt films—especially good embodying a silent rage at the ungrateful people around her. And while from the title on down, this movie is very much focused on women, the underrated Jared Harris lends a touch of grace to the walking tragedy of a man giving so much aggravation to Dern's character.

Ever since Williams signed on for Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt has been able to attract well-known actors who are undoubtedly bringing her fiercely independent work to a wider audience (choosing to shoot on 16mm film in this era, Reichardt clearly isn't pursuing the multiplex). But as good as the name talent is here, it's the least known of the "certain women" who steals the show.

I don't know what the future holds for Lily Gladstone, but she makes Jamie the heart and soul of this movie. Certain Women is many things, but perhaps more than anything it is a love letter to the lonely, and Gladstone's gentle, open wound of neediness is that letter's sweetest, saddest line.

Certain Women. Written and directed by Kelly Reichardt. Based on short stories by Maile Meloy. Starring Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, James Le Gros and Jared Harris. 108 mins. Rated R.

Now playing at Landmark's Century Centre in Chicago, Cinemark's Century 12/CineArts 6 in Evanston, and Landmark's Renaissance Place in Highland Park.