Kelly Reichardt has a singular cinematic voice, one that had been developing impressively over the course of her three previous films “Old Joy,” “Wendy and Lucy” and “Night Moves.” Unfortunately her latest, “Certain Women,” feels like a regression. The tripartite film, adapted from several short stories by Montana writer Maile Meloy, boasts a fine cast and offers some striking moments, but in the last analysis its modest minimalism feels affected rather than affecting.
In the first segment, Laura Wells (Laura Dern), a small-town lawyer who’s having an affair with a married man named Ryan (James Le Gros), is bewildered by her client Fuller (Jared Harris). He’s a construction worker who was injured on the job and intent on pursuing a case against his employer though by accepting payment for the injury he’d effectively given up any further claim. Wells is annoyed that after arguing about the matter with her for months, Fuller meekly accepts the same opinion from another—male—lawyer. He then breaks into the company’s offices, takes a guard hostage, and demands that Wells come to look over their files to see if there might be grounds for restarting the case.
In the second episode Ryan reappears as the husband of Gina (Michelle Williams). After finishing a camping trip with their teen daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier), they approach their elderly neighbor Albert (Rene Auberjonois) to purchase a pile of sandstone that’s been sitting in his front yard for years. Gina intends to use it as part of a getaway cottage they’re building as a retreat, presumably to reinvigorate their marriage. Of course, we know that the couple is already in trouble.
The final story is actually a study of stalking, though of a most genteel kind. A sweet but bumptious young woman (Lily Gladstone), who works on a horse ranch, wanders into an evening class in the history of public education policy in the U.S. The students are all teachers, presumably taking the course as some sort of professional requirement, and the interloper has no interest in the subject; but she’s fascinated by the instructor, a nervous young lawyer named Beth (Kristen Stewart), who drives in from Livingston. She shares meals with Beth in the local diner after class (or, more accurately, just sits and watches Beth eat), and takes her for a late-night ride on her horse. When Beth abruptly quits, she drives to Livingston in an effort to find her, and the two have an awkward meeting before brief closing scenes refer back to the first two segments.
Each of these tales could be presented as a discrete featurette; except for the overlapping presence of Ryan in the first two, they share nothing specific besides, one presumes, the setting. Each is distinguished by able performances (Gladstone is especially strong among the women, though Dern, Williams and Stewart are all fine, and Auberjonois is remarkable as a fellow whose grasp on reality is beginning to evaporate), and Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography subtly captures the play of light and shadow in the images.
But apart from the most general themes of themes of isolation and the difficulty of communication, the episodes fail to come together as a unified entity. They remain individual vignettes rather than becoming a satisfying whole.
In sum, an interesting addition to a distinctive career, but not Reichardt at her best.