Kelly Reichardt’s exquisite, character-based indie films are often described as “low key” or “deliberately-paced.” They tend to “take their time.” If you read between the lines, what that really means is that they can be a bit…slow. But I’d argue that slow can be good. Slow is a sorely needed counterbalance to our current diet of multiplex shock and awe. It allows us to marinate in a story and absorb its characters into our pores. All of which is to say that I’ve been an admirer of Reichardt’s films from the start—especially 2006’s Old Joy and 2008’s Wendy and Lucy. But her latest, Certain Women, pushes patience to the breaking point. It’s detailed, delicate, and frankly, kind of an aimless drag. It isn’t until the last third that the film finally comes to heartbreaking life.
Adapted from a series of short stories by Maile Meloy, Certain Women is comprised of three somewhat-interwoven tales set in Montana—lived-in snapshots of characters we rarely get to see in studio movies. In the first, Laura Dern plays a small-town lawyer having an unsatisfying affair with a married man (James Le Gros) and whose desperate client (Jared Harris) turns on her with sudden, tense violence. In the second, Michelle Williams (so quietly poignant in Wendy and Lucy) plays a woman who is building a new home with her husband (LeGros again) out in the middle of nowhere. There’s a history of resentment between them—betrayals and disappointments that remain mostly unspoken— but both do their best to spackle over it. In the last third, Kristen Stewart plays a harried night-school instructor teaching a law course who, unbeknownst to her, makes a deep impact on one of her students (Lily Gladstone, playing a lonely horse farmer). And the gentle, one-sided bond between the two becomes a deeply affecting portrait of sadness and unexpressed longing for an emotional connection that’s out of reach.
All three stories have an unhurried naturalism. The power is in the details, the hushed minutia. But the first two feel so slight and lightweight they’d probably blow away if a breeze came along. They’re strong on subtext, but light on text. It isn’t until the wonderful Gladstone comes along with her aching tomboy heartache and sad seeking eyes that the film finally burrows below the surface and finally hits a dramatic nerve. Unfortunately, by then, it’s too little too late. C+