With a population of just over 7000 people, Livingston, Montana may be a tiny city by many standards. But it may as well be the center of the universe in Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, which features three loosely-connected vignettes based there:
- Laura (Laura Dern) is a lawyer who must deal with a client (Jared Harris) who has been injured on the job as a result of an employer’s negligence, but who refuses to accept that he’s ineligible to sue because he’s already taken a small settlement.
- Gail (Michelle Williams) and her husband Fuller (James Le Gros, who also happens to be sleeping with Dern’s character) are building a new house and want to use rustic building materials. Albert (Rene Auberjonois) is a confused older man with a bunch of sandstone blocks (remnants of an old school torn down decades ago) on his property. They’d be perfect for the house, but Albert is still holding onto the delusion that he might make use of them, and Gail is frustrated by the lack of support she’s getting from Fuller.
- Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart) is a recent law school graduate whose anxiety over her ability to repay her student loans causes her to mistakenly take a second job teaching a twice-weekly night class in a town that’s four hours away. But a lonely ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) looks forward to those classes as the highlight of her social calendar.
Certain Women is Reichardt’s deepest dive into character study since 2006’s Old Joy, which is to say that it provides only the barest of plots. The first story, with Dern and Harris, is the only one to offer any kind of excitement and will be the most approachable to those more accustomed to blockbuster-type movies (although there’s still a fair amount of downtime before we get to its climax). But those times when nothing much is happening are also the times that feel the most genuine, and that leave plenty of room for you to admire the quality of the performances and the filmmaking. The pacing and sparseness are also very appropriate for the laid-back, small-town life on display, but without the respite of grand vistas or a catchy soundtrack, it’s not hard to see why some audiences might be bored out of their minds while watching it.