Director Kelly Reichardt specializes in a quiet attention to the small. In general that serves her well, making her films stand out with their unhurried emotional arcs. Whether tracking the sad plight of homeless woman traveling with her dog or a batch of weary, nineteenth century pioneers, Reichardt’s steadfast refusal to whirlwind up contrived drama invites attention to the more intimate facets of her stories, those that nestle in close to the bones of the characters. In their sharpest moment, Reichardt’s films unearth truths that most fiction storytelling rushes recklessly over. Admittedly, that can make the resulting works feel slight, but there’s also room for resonance. By its very structure, Reichardt’s latest, Certain Women, demonstrates how both qualities can coexist.
Certain Women is adapted by Reichardt from short stories written by Maile Meloy, taken from the collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I See It. Beyond a glancing moment here and there, Reichardt forgoes any attempt at connection the stories she culls, preferring to present them largely self-contained, clicking out in succession. The first focuses on a lawyer (Laura Dern) struggling with a client (Jared Harris) who can’t quite accept that he has no legal recourse to seek damages for a job site injury. The second segment hinges on a married couple (Michelle Williams and James Le Gros) trying to convince an older man (René Murat Auberjonois) to give them a pile of sandstone rocks so they can incorporate them into a house they’re building. Finally, a quiet woman working as a ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) starts attending night classes on the subject of education law, entirely so she can spend time with the teacher, a young attorney (Kristen Stewart) who regrets agreeing to preside over the lessons.
Each segment has its moment, usually driven by some insightful nuance in a performance. The first two also come across as narrative shrugs, wisps of ideas that Reichardt didn’t need to flesh out given their relatively brief lengths. They glide by, heartfelt and unmemorable. The third story is something different, though, mostly because Reichardt and Gladstone manage to make the character who drives it feel completely unique and yet familiar at the same time. Gladstone’s young is a person who lives with a heavy burden of loneliness and can’t quite figure out how to connect with someone else, no matter how much she aches for it. In most depictions, such a character winds up being presented as troubled or worrisomely off. In this empathetic rendering, it is a gentle state of being rather than some pitiable affliction. There is sadness to be found in the story, especially in its conclusion, which builds tension through the rush to a small but certain defeat. What is missing is judgment, and that itself is an understated triumph.
Of course, understated triumph is another Reichardt specialty. If that assessment can’t be applied uniformly to Certain Women, there’s still value in the pieces of the film on which it lays perfectly. There’s enough bombast in modern cinema. I’m grateful for those who are artistic practitioners of the opposite.