In the films of Kelly Reichardt, the landscape tends to be the most compelling character. That's not intended as a dig at the acclaimed art-house director of Meek's Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy, just a recognition that interpersonal drama is not her focus or forte.
Silences are long in Reichardt's movies, dialogue muted, conflicts low-key and typically resolved (if at all) in a moment that is over before we even realize it has arrived. Filling the long gaps around the words, Reichardt's visuals — whether verdant or stark — communicate with all the eloquence the characters lack, whether those characters are trying to escape their natural environment (as in Meek's Cutoff), protect it (as in Night Moves) or just eke out an existence there.
The filmmaker's style proves an apt match for the work of writer Maile Meloy, three of whose short stories serve as the basis for Certain Women. Each of the film's three parts tells one woman's story. While the protagonists don't interact, all three reside in or visit the same desolate Montana town, and supporting characters and locations reappear.
In the first story, a small-town lawyer (Laura Dern) juggles an adulterous affair and a disgruntled client (Jared Harris). Her entire body exudes weariness, and the only time she expresses an opinion, it's to note that "it would be so restful" to be a man, because then her problem client might stop pushing back against her bleak assessment of his case.
Exhaustion turns out to be a theme in the other two sections, too. In the middle one — by far the slowest — Michelle Williams and James Le Gros are a couple building themselves a dream house. She's the perfectionist, he more laid-back, but it's clear that the labor of marriage and parenthood weighs heavily on both of them.
In the third and most satisfying story, the exhausted character is a newly minted lawyer named Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart) teaching a night course with a punishing commute. Elizabeth is, to put it mildly, not a dynamic instructor — slumped, mumbling, visibly insecure. Yet she glows in the eyes of the lonely, unnamed ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) who walks into her class one night.
The "relationship" that ensues between the two women is more like a series of brief, laconic exchanges, halfway between casual acquaintance and stalking. Yet it's poignant because Gladstone's character exhibits a quality that no one else in the film has: the exuberance of youth and hope. Riding through the snowy fields, she inhabits the majestic landscape with energy the other characters lack. While she can't voice what she and Elizabeth have in common, she clearly feels it, and makes us feel it, too.
To deride film landscapes as mere "scenery" is to forget the role that place plays in our own lives. Williams' character tries to appropriate a piece of the landscape by building her home from reclaimed stone; Elizabeth views Montana's expanses as an obstacle; Dern's character ignores them, holing herself up in dark interiors. But Reichardt's camera always returns eventually from the burrows people dig for themselves to the mountains that hover on the horizon like a promise.
One might call Certain Women "Fargo without the crime" — three case studies of people in northern climes struggling to maintain their equilibrium through a long, enervating winter. The film is worth watching for the rare moments when they lose that equilibrium, and for the even rarer ones when they open their hearts to the possibility of an early spring.