In ‘Certain Women,’ the Story’s Not the Point

This series of vignettes, set around wintry Livingston, Montana, is more about the tone than the tale.

Kelly Reichardt’s films quietly creep up on plotlines, sniffing around the possibilities of storytelling before shifting away into a different kind of thing. In Meek’s Cutoff, a wagon train of pioneers is lost in the parched West; in Night Moves, a group of environmental saboteurs plans a bombing; in Wendy and Lucy, a traveler faces a transportation problem on the road to somewhere. None of these situations is allowed to come together in the usual kind of completion, which means you’re left with Reichardt’s wonderful way with actors and dialogue and a sense that we should be concentrating on gesture and intonation rather than plot.

I don’t want all movies to be like this, but I’m grateful for Reichardt’s talent for warping our movie expectations. With that in mind, I was intrigued by the opening of her new film, Certain Women, which uncannily echoes the first scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: A woman, no longer young, is wrapping up an afternoon tryst with a married man during a lunch break at a hotel in the West. There will be no murders ahead, except maybe of the spiritual kind—Hitchcock was interested in that, too. This vignette is the first of three (based on stories by Montana-born Maile Meloy) that will unfold and slightly overlap. All take place in or around wintry Livingston, Montana.

The woman is Laura (Laura Dern), a lawyer whose client (Jared Harris) is suffering from a work-related head injury. He doesn’t listen to her, probably because she’s a woman, but she doesn’t do a great job of listening to him, either. The second episode begins with married couple Gina (Michelle Williams) and Ryan (James LeGros) camping in their fashionable yurt with their bored adolescent daughter. These people aren’t good at listening to each other, either (Ryan, in fact, is the married guy Laura is having the affair with). Gina and Ryan are trying to get an aging man (Rene Auberjonois) to sell a pile of sandstone bricks in his yard. Gina is very concerned that the house they build on their property should be native and authentic and—you know, all that. But there’s a sense that taking these rocks away from the man’s house will really be taking something away.

The third strand is arranged around the repetitive chores of a lonely ranch hand (Lily Gladstone). One night she sits in during a night class on school law, for teachers. The instructor is a newly minted lawyer (Kristen Stewart) who must drive four hours from Livingston just to teach this class. The scenes between these two at a truck stop show what Reichardt does very well, employing turns of phrase that don’t waste a syllable on unnecessary exposition and catching mysteriously heartbreaking details like the way Stewart wipes the corner of her mouth with a napkin that has not yet been unwrapped from around its cutlery. The two actresses are exactly in the movie’s quiet mode, yet they are very distinct from each other: Gladstone is moony and plain-acting, Stewart sharp and anxious. The audience sees, before the characters do, that the ranch hand is hopelessly lovestruck.

Because of the location and the compact look into the lives of half-realized people, Certain Women will inevitably invite comparisons with the writing of Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, which is fair. That these situations are here filtered through a female sensibility is crucial, but Reichardt is even-handed about her sympathies—she’s aware that both sexes screw things up at a tragically high rate. The more important difference with someone like Carver is that Reichardt is truly cinematic, not literary. In one long-held shot, a character withdraws her hopes from Livingston as she drives a pick-up truck out of the place; we watch her face just to the right of the frame as we notice the town passing by and eventually retreating through the back window. This is what it means to leave Livingston, Montana, as a little dream dies and life resumes, and it’s the language of film that conveys that emotional punch. I think it would be interesting if Reichardt did something in a louder key—maybe knock off a thriller or something. But what she does, she does extremely well. Certain Women, Rated R. Opens Fri., Oct. 21 at the Egyptian Theater.