Dir/scr: Kelly Reichardt. US, 2015. 107 min.

With Certain Women, Kelly Reichardt confirms her status as cinema’s foremost poet of the American Northwest. Set in Montana, and based on a series of short stories by native Maile Meloy, this film combines three loosely connected vignettes centered around professional women and their encounters with others from the community.

Certain Women is never explicit, about anything, which is what will make it a rewarding experience for discerning viewers

Reichardt paints an unromanticised portrait of life in the Big Sky state, one surrounded by snow-covered mountains, the wailing sounds of nearby freight trains, and industrious folks who are just trying to get by. It is a patiently told film, comprised of observational slices of life rather than the standard plotlines one usually finds at the art-house. For that reason, Certain Women may be one of Reichardt’s least commercial films in years. And yet, buoyed by critical praise and the film’s starry cast (Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart), it should still have a long life on the festival circuit, in museums, and on ancillary platforms.

The film opens with the story of a lawyer played by Dern, whose client (Jared Harris) was injured on the job and feels cheated by his worker’s compensation settlement. The second section concerns a married couple (Williams and James Le Gros) who visit an elderly man to acquire sandstone for a house they plan to build. The last part follows the relationship between Jamie, a Native ranch hand (Lily Gladstone), and a young lawyer (Stewart) from a faraway town who is teaching an adult education class on school law. But nothing really happens happens, in a movie-made way. Even when Dern’s character finds herself sent in to diffuse a hostage situation, it’s not meant to be dramatic.

The brief synopses do little to convey what these stories may be about, or the authenticity and grace with which they are presented. Working with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, who also shot Reichardt’s previous Night Moves and Meek’s Cutoff, the film has the genuineness of a documentary combined with the exquisite but never overly self-conscious imagery of an art film. There is nothing flashy here; Reichardt is concerned with real life, and though the three actresses in the film are veritable movie stars, they fit naturally into their roles as working-class Montana professionals.

Stewart, in particular, has never been more credibly gloomy as an overtired young lawyer, who always looks cold and has dark circles around her eyes. Her story, but specifically her tentative connection with the small-town female ranch hand, is the most emotionally rich of the three narratives. Though still extremely subtle, the film conveys a sense of loss or missed opportunity in these two wandering people from different backgrounds and social classes who briefly connect. There is a slight sense of pathos in Jamie’s story. Maybe she yearns for a different life? Or maybe she’s just lonely.

Certain Women is never explicit, about anything, which is what will make it a rewarding experience for discerning viewers. The film may have something to say about how men don’t listen to women, or how people are divided by class difference, or how life is just pretty darn hard, no matter who you are. Whatever it is, Reichardt has crafted another deeply felt and beautifully ambiguous meditation on contemporary life in the far corners of the American heartland.

Production Company: filmscience

International sales: SPWA

Producers: Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani

Executive Producers: Todd Haynes, Larry Fessenden, Christopher Carroll, Nathan Kelly

Cinematography: Christopher Blauvelt

Production designer: Anthony Gasparro

Editor: Kelly Reichardt

Main Cast: Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, James Le Gros, Jared Harris, Lily Gladstone