Power lines and railroad tracks bisect the center of an endless valley that feeds upward into a steep mountain range. Cloud cover spreads out over Montana's Big Sky Country for miles, lying heavily across the horizon like a massive grey blanket. An oncoming locomotive's whistle blares as it slowly creeps toward some offscreen destination.
The pristine opening image of Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women is one of dense overlap between civilization and nature, a perfect foreshadowing for the small but powerful human entanglements to follow. Epic quiet and manifest destiny have long lived in contentious harmony in this snowy region, which is a far cry visually from the rain-drenched Cascade Mountains of Reichardt's Old Joy. Three loosely connected stories—based on the writings of Maile Meloy—unfold at a measured pace, focusing on women approaching specific junctures in life.
In the film's opening segment, civil attorney Laura Wells (Laura Dern) deals with an unruly client named Fuller (Jared Harris) who refuses to accept the reality that his workers compensation claim against a negligent contractor has no further legal footing. While the tension from this conflict threatens to spell tragedy, Reichardt allows for a comedic undercurrent that brilliantly lightens the mood.
Michelle Williams' Gina, a perpetually unhappy wife/mother, dominates the second section emanating an untapped well of contempt whenever in the presence of another human being. It's difficult to watch as she smiles through a tough negotiation with elderly Albert (Rene Auberjonois) over a pile of discarded sandstone, her husband Ryan (James LeGros) doing everything he can to avoid the discomfort of confrontation.
Lily Gladstone's sublime presence gives Certain Women's final third a next-level gravity. As Jamie, the lonely hardworking farm hand who falls for Kristen Stewart's exhausted law student, she exudes a sense of real-world pragmatism that butts up against the desire of romantic emotion and passionate chivalry.
Traditional gender roles are challenged in the calmest of ways, be it through offhand observations or gestures that signify an ocean of subtext. During Laura's conversations with Fuller she must become a figure of authority and empathy almost simultaneously. Reichardt's appreciation for silence resonates most in the moment Gina walks along the banks of a small river, or when Jamie rides a horse down main street through the darkness like a reimagined Western hero. There are many ways to be alone.
Certain Women makes it a point to look at the process of experience rather than achieving an end result. Compare and contrast how all three lead characters approach conversations about the future and you'll see a panorama of beautifully contradictory viewpoints formed by upbringing, temperament and ambition. Reichardt merges them into a modern rustic tableau, tender and honest in its depiction of flawed individuals trying to make rural life their own in the modern age.
What matters most is how one experiences the seemingly innocuous moments in between events. Do we cherish or dread them? Do we take the time to think about how they could potentially change our view of the world? These are questions Reichardt has asked before in her films, albeit through the tautness created by discomforting absence (Wendy and Lucy) and survival (Meek's Cutoff, Night Moves).
Certain Women, opening Friday, Oct. 21, at Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas, approaches such ideas in a slightly more ambiguous way. As we watch Laura, Gina and Jaime watch the world, a symbiotic relationship forms based on mutual association and past experience. This collection of knowledge adds up to something more profound even when we can't pinpoint exactly why. Reichardt's latest might be undeniably sad at times, but it's also devoid of self-pity and apathy. Every bit contains wisdom that stretches as far as the eye can see.