Stillness is the move in “Certain Women,” the latest film from acclaimed indie director Kelly Reichardt (“Night Moves”). An anthology film with segments that are only cursorily linked, “Certain Women” depicts the lives of four women in and around Livingston, Montana. The screenplay was adapted by Reichardt from a short story collection by Maile Meloy, a fiction writer from Montana. In one segment, Laura Wells (Laura Dern, “Wild”), a lawyer, tries to console her deranged client. In another, Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams, “Blue Valentine”) tries to buy sandstone from an elderly friend for a house she is building with her family from the ground up. In the third, Jamie (Lily Gladstone, in her film debut), a young rancher, strikes up an almost romantic friendship with Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart, “Still Alice”), who teaches a law class.
Livingston sits at the foothills of Yellowstone and is one of those railroad towns, developed in the early 20th century as migrant workers moved westward in search of new employment opportunities. But in 2016, the city hasn’t grown much and is struggling to maintain its old charm, which fades fast as populations shift to nearby Bozeman or Billings, the latter of which gets a mention toward the film’s beginning. Those who stay have limited opportunities, little work and bleak lives, covered in a thin layer of early winter snow. Among the rugged mountains that frame their small city, each woman is forging a new path for herself, but the resources are slim.
Reichardt’s commitment to molasses-like pacing can prove a deterrent — especially considering not too much really happens in each segment — but the performances she coaxes out of her actors are nothing short of superb. Dern as an experienced lawyer without the trust of her client, Fuller (Jared Harris, “Mad Men”), exhibits a repressed frustration surely shared by the perennially overlooked. She slips between sympathy for Fuller and an irritation at his deranged mental state. Williams is quietly devastating, a wife and businesswoman angry with her husband for accidentally creating divides between her and her daughter, while Rene Auberjonois (“M*A*S*H”) easily (hauntingly even) transforms into a confused elderly man. Stewart, experiencing a critical renaissance of her own, is a natural fit in Reichardt’s whispered world, engaging in dialogue devoid of the artifice that plagues too many other films.
Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (“Indignation”) aptly captures Livingston’s bleakly stagnant citizens. The camera, almost never moving, focuses in on each character, allowing a full display of thoughts, emotions, feelings, questions and, importantly, decisions. Blauvelt’s photography is a cinematic Minnesota nice, granting each individual their due time that seems to move westward across the Dakotas. That stillness, though, can be sinister. In one segment at a crime scene, tension mounts and the scant editing can make the heart pound.
The nature of sparseness in this film is such that whenever frills are added, they naturally carry more weight, tipping Reichardt’s hand ever so slightly to prove what is important and, perhaps, what can be dismissed. Scored music plays prominently one time, at a heartbreaking juncture in the film’s last third. For Jamie a brief respite from her unending hours on the farm must come to an end, and she’s left despondent. So, too, are our other characters, in their own ways. Perhaps that solemnity is rooted in the nature of modern society’s treatment of women. Maybe it’s just Montana in the quiet winter. Reichardt, either way, is uniquely gifted at capturing that deep desire to escape.