Though not technically a Western, Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” takes place in a region of broad skies, rocky landscapes and pent-up feelings. Human beings are sparse, and words are even scarcer. But Reichardt, a transplanted Easterner based in Portland, Ore., is a poet of silences and open spaces, and her plain-looking, taciturn films have their own kind of eloquence, the specific gravity of rare minerals.
Working from short stories by Maile Meloy, Reichardt has composed a splintered group portrait. The three women who, in turn, occupy the center of the screen, are loosely connected to one another. They live in the same town, and one of them is having an affair with another’s husband. This adultery is peripheral to the main drama, which is more oblique and turns on frustrations and failures of communication that are all the more painful for being almost impossible to describe.
Laura Wells (Laura Dern), a lawyer, contends with a difficult client (Jared Harris), a man whose profound unhappiness with the way things are threatens to erupt into violence. He’s pathetic but also frightening, and Laura tries to keep a safe, professional distance while holding onto her empathy for him, an effort that produces both a note of tension and a deep chord of melancholy.
Tension and unacknowledged sorrow also define Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams), who is building a house in the countryside with her husband (James Le Gros) and daughter (Sara Rodier), who she sometimes feels are allied in a silent conspiracy against her. Their family disharmony is underscored – but also, somehow, potentially resolved – when they purchase a pile of old stones from an ancient rancher. Those rocks are at once symbols of transience and of permanence. They lend themselves to solid structures that are nonetheless fated to fall down.
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In all of Reichardt’s films – from “River of Grass” and “Old Joy,” through “Wendy and Lucy,” “Meek’s Cutoff” and “Night Movies” – the human presence feels fragile and contingent. And the stories of Laura and Gina, while interesting, deftly told and meticulously acted, also feel a little thin, more like anecdotes plucked from the stream of everyday life than like episodes of illumination. The third panel of this triptych is something else, though: a quiet, perfect vignette through which silent passion surges like an underground stream.
In it, Kristen Stewart plays Beth Travis, a young lawyer teaching a night class at a rural school. Ostensibly on the topic of education law, something Beth admits she doesn’t know much about, the course is mainly an after-hours opportunity for teachers to complain about their jobs. Also in the room, for unclear reasons, is a young ranch hand named Jamie (Lily Gladstone), who finds herself smitten with the instructor, and who pursues her infatuation with nervous dedication.
This love story – as full of longing as a great pop song, but without any overt statement of passion – is embedded in the hard routines of Western life: long drives, repetitive chores, endless cups of coffee. Stewart manages the remarkable feat of being at once convincingly mousy and unmistakably glamorous. With her stringy hair, stooped shoulders and anxious smile, Beth is a weary, self-effacing drone, except to Jamie, for whom she is a radiant queen. And Stewart, a tremendously disciplined actress, holds onto just enough of the magnetism that made her a movie star to allow us to see the character both ways, and to understand the ferocity of Jamie’s attraction to her.
That crush is the movie’s strongest source of heat, and it has the effect of rendering the other parts of “Certain Women” a little chillier and smaller than they might otherwise have seemed. The subtlety of the film is both an accomplishment and a limitation. It’s hard not to want more for these women, and to wish you could see more of them.
Cast: Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Jared Harris, Lily Gladstone
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Rated R (sex, smoking and sadness)