'Certain Women' Review: Tales of Females on the Verge is Actress Showcase

Kelly Reichardt's brilliant triptych about three women dealing with crises is a humanist triumph – and one of the year's best

Kelly Reichardt's 'Certain Women,' about three females on the verge, is a humanist triumph – and Peter Travers says it's one of the year's best. Credit: Courtesy of BFI London Film Festival

Kelly Reichardt makes films that unfold at the speed of life, not Hollywood. She's a poet of the space between words, and the hypnotic and haunting Certain Women presents the writer-director at her artfully attentive best. Dropping in on the lives of three Montana women, beautifully played by Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart, Reichardt uses three short stories by Maile Meloy to spin an exquisite web.

Dern plays Laura Wells, a small-town lawyer who has just been kissed off by her married lover and must now figure out how to convince a construction-worker client (Mad Men's Jared Harris) that his injury case against his employer has no chance in court. Even when the case escalates into a hostage situation, Reichardt never pushes for pathos.

Williams, who graced two of Reichardt's finest films (Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff) digs into the role of Gina Lewis, a wife on a camping trip with her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) and their teen daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier). The trip underscores the tensions in this family unit without overplaying them. Gina is determined to build a weekend cottage from repurposed native materials. But she is not above exploiting an old family friend, Albert (René Auberjonois), to get her hands on his vintage sandstone – her humanist impulse to stay true to the land and its values apparently doesn't extend to people.

Stewart, achingly vulnerable, plays Beth, a recent law school graduate who drives for hours every week to teach a class at an adult education center. One of her students, a Native American ranch hand named Jamie (Lily Gladstone), is instantly attracted to her. Beth sees her interest, but can't return the feeling, or even articulate it. In one silent scene, Jamie drives alone at night, her face a mirror of conflicting emotions she must learn to live with. Gladstone gives a performance of such piercing honesty and yearning, you almost can't look at her.

Reichardt does look, with a healing humanism that refuses to let the lives of these four women get lost under Montana's big skies and vast landscapes. Shot with a weathered grandeur by Christopher Blauvelt, Certain Women lets us see these characters move and breathe in surroundings that fuse with them. The cumulative power of Reichardt’s film is undeniable and quietly devastating.