The independent American filmmaker Kelly Reichardt has made silence one of her most eloquent tools. In her spare, naturalistic films, such as the feminist Western Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy, it is in the quiet moments that her characters often seem most expressive. When words are scarce, micro gestures, facial expressions, telling looks and glances, become the currency for revealing their inner workings, to us and to each other.
And so it is with Reichardt’s latest film, Certain Women. With a cast featuring Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern and Michelle Williams, it is her most starry film to date. Even so, its three vaguely connected tales of everyday women, drawn from the stories Tome, Native Sandstone and Travis B, by Montana-based author Maile Meloy, are modest in scale and, until the final part of this keenly-observed triptych, modest in affect.
In the first, a lawyer (Dern) deals with a lonely and time-consuming client (Jared Harris), who seems to be on the verge of a violent meltdown as the result of a life-crushing workplace accident. She is having an affair (although it is only incidental to the main drama) with a man who turns out to be the husband of Williams’s character in the second story about a couple who want an old friend to sell them a pile of historic sandstone blocks for the weekend home they are building.
While superbly acted, especially by Dern and Harris, and rich in observational detail, these stories aren’t entirely satisfying, feeling more like sketches than fully realised pieces. This sense is heightened by the third and most affecting section, about a lonely ranch hand, Jamie (winningly played by newcomer Lily Gladstone), who strikes up an acquaintance with Kristen Stewart’s young out-of-town lawyer during her visits to teach a night class. Jamie’s longing for connection, and unexpressed passion, are touching and painful, and lend the story a weight and emotional intensity that the other parts lack.
Ultimately the subtlety of Certain Women, while admirable, proves double-edged. The film is mature, insightful and meticulously crafted, but only at the end does it feel like flesh has been put on the bone.
Certain Women is released March 3