On Oct. 14, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women opened in major markets, though unless you live in New York City or Los Angeles, there’s a good chance that you won’t be able to see it for at least another week or two. By then, the modest buzz that Certain Women received upon release might well have dissipated. (So far, Certain Women has grossed around $225,000 on 41 screens.) An ensemble drama set in Montana, Certain Women is hardly an easy sell — even the critics who liked it have classified it as slow, uneven, and “plain-looking.” The unintended result is that a movie like Certain Women can be widely admired by critics and still overshadowed by less difficult films with more hype behind them.
Let’s not allow that to happen: Certain Women is one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2016, and a signature work by one of our greatest contemporary filmmakers. It’s stuck with me ever since I saw it — Certain Women is the rare movie that actually improves in your memory, because it leaves open spaces in your imagination to be filled with your own thoughts and experiences.
Based on stories by Montana fiction writer Maile Meloy, Certain Women is an anthology movie of sorts, telling three stories that become greater than the sum of their parts. In the first story, a small-town attorney (Laura Dern) is struggling to manage a troubled client (Jared Harris, aka Lane Pryce from Mad Men) locked in fruitless litigation with a former employer. In the second story, a yuppie couple (Michelle Williams and James LeGros) attempts to procure a pile of old, “authentic” stones from a lonely rancher for their new dream home. In the third story, a cowhand (Lily Gladstone) feels a powerful attraction to a young lawyer (Kristen Stewart) that she struggles to understand.
On paper, admittedly, Certain Women is hardly scintillating. So far, I’ve described a movie about two lawyers and a married couple who buy a pile of rocks. The execution, though, is something else: The most universally praised section of Certain Women is the third story, a doomed would-be love story in which Gladstone, in a heartbreaking performance, makes fumbling romantic gestures to Stewart, who manages to stay true to the mousiness of her character while still projecting movie-star magnetism. But the other sections, while less complete, have also lingered in large part to how well Dern and Williams are able to convey their inner turmoil in such relatably human ways. While the stories in Certain Women are fragmentary, the characters feel like real people who have entered your life for 90 minutes. When the movie ends, they continue to live on in your head.
Favoring contemplative shots of desolate landscapes and characters performing daily tasks with a yeoman’s dull commitment, Certain Women veers about as far from melodrama as possible. (The most overpowering emotional moment in the whole movie involves a long, sustained, wordless shot of a person driving her truck out of town.) It’s typical of Reichardt’s meditative style: Her specialty is depicting people who don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves. It’s why comparisons with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, which have come up in various reviews, don’t quite fit. Reichardt doesn’t have much use for Altman’s habit of overlapping dialogue. Reichardt is more into overlapping silence.