At one point during the development of Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women,” the film was called “Livingston,” a title that refers to the small Montana town where most of the movie takes place. The name-change is provocative, suggesting that Reichardt intends to say something very specific about gender. And there are definitely scenes in “Certain Women” to support that. The movie’s divided into three sections — each anchored by a female protagonist, and each based on a short story by Guggenheim fellow Maile Meloy — and in each of the first two, there’s a moment where the main character talks to a man who barely seems to register anything she says. In the Montana of this movie, women are independent and headstrong, yet still undervalued.
But it’d be reductive and inadequate to define “Certain Women” strictly in terms of what it might be “saying.” The film’s three parts have the qualities of great literary fiction and of refined art-cinema. Reichardt is primarily concerned with capturing Meloy’s highly specific characters, and the landscape they populate. There’s a lot to be picked up here — about the loneliness of people separated by the American Northwest’s vastness, and about being a good steward of both a land and its history. Then again, a person could get a lot out of staring at an artfully composed photograph of Montana, too. For Reichardt, the aesthetics matter as much as the theme.
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“Certain Women” is a deliberately slow-paced film, though not undramatic. The first segment stars Laura Dern as a small-claims attorney who’s become exasperated by her most difficult client: a skilled handyman (played by Jared Harris) who refuses to understand that while a former employer is responsible for his current disability, they’re legally absolved of paying him any more workman’s compensation. The third segment stars Lily Gladstone as a horse-rancher whose attraction to a stressed-out recent law-school grad (Kristen Stewart) begins to cross the line from sweet to stalker-ish. Both of these stories feels like they could evolve at any time to something violent or tragic — and both actually do build to a confrontation of sorts, although Meloy and Reichardt avoid cheap payoffs.
The most emotionally complex of the three sections though stars Michelle Williams as Gina, the mother of a snippy teenage daughter and the wife of an unfaithful man (James Le Gros), who’s trying to alleviate his guilt somewhat by building her a house out in the country. Gina has decided that she wants him to use as much natural and local material as possible, so she and her husband ask a feeble elderly friend named Albert (Rene Auberjonois) if they can have the pile of sandstone that’s been sitting out in front of his house for years. He responds by launching into a monologue about the origin of the stone, turning what seems like a simple request into a complicated statement on what it means to be a Montanan — and what it might mean to his identity to give these rocks away.
That conversation between Gina and Albert is the most blatant example in “Certain Women” of a man not really paying attention to a woman. On the other hand, it’s part of the overall style of this film for people to speak past each other — and usually after uncommonly long pauses. Although the dialogue and delivery are fairly realistic, the beats that Reichardt encourages between lines makes the characters’ interactions feel less natural. Like the director’s earlier films — “River of Grass,” “Old Joy,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Meek’s Cutoff,” and “Night Moves” — “Certain Women” is so hushed and halting that it’s bound to turn off some viewers.
The structure may assuage some of the Reichardt-averse. Because no one segment runs much longer than 30 minutes, the film changes focus often enough to avoid overkill. And while the way each part trails off may initially seem unsatisfying, Reichardt helps out by giving each a coda in the movie’s last 10 minutes — which, in the case of the Dern/Harris story, is essential to clarifying what it’s all about. Though “Certain Women” is difficult, it’s hardly obtuse.
And for those willing to trust that Reichardt is in full command of this material, “Certain Women” is utterly enthralling. The glacial storytelling has a mesmerizing effect, and also gives audiences time to drink in the big skies — against which the humans look so insignificant — and to appreciate the careful way that Reichardt establishes what Meloy’s heroines are up against. The cold, the distance, the arduous labor, the subtle class divisions, and the unwelcoming men… all of these help define why these certain women are the way they are. [A-]