Kelly Reichardt is one of our finest filmmakers. Her keenly judged eye for detail and sense for powerfully felt interiority imbues her films with casual and precise empathetic observation. Her latest is Certain Women, a trio of gem-like short stories so patiently unfolded and deeply considered, each moment, each shot, each breath is used to further their gripping emotional trance. Like the best short stories – these are adapted from the works of Maile Meloy, whose direct prose is of such concision and power she reads to me like nothing less than an Alice Munro, or a modern woman Hemingway – they turn on small shifts of emotion or perception, tremble with unspoken or thwarted desires, and snap shut with satisfying finality nonetheless played with notes of ambiguity. These are stories of isolation and loneliness, of women who need to make connections, feel satisfaction in their lives of quiet desperation. Set in beautifully austere small towns and open spaces of the northern midwest, Reichardt visualizes the quotidian with a poet’s spirit, and understands her characters’ deepest yearnings down to a molecular level.
Here’s a movie that inhabits its characters lives. We don’t just observe their strife or contemplate a crisis. We live with them, understand the rhythms and dramas of their days, and become so closely attuned to their personalities it’s possible to feel the entire weight of a story change in a silence, a stillness, a pause. Reichardt sees these women with great warmth and understanding. We meet a lawyer (Laura Dern) whose troubled client (Jared Harris) is frustrated by lack of progress on his disability claim. Then we spend time with a woman (Michelle Williams) who is scouting limestone for a house she’s building out in the country with her husband (James Le Gros). A stone pile they find belongs to an old man (Rene Auberjonois) with an emotional attachment to the building it once was. Then there’s a young professional (Kristen Stewart) stuck as an adjunct night class instructor, driving hundreds of miles in the dark to and from the course no one else wanted to teach. One student (Lily Gladstone) comes in from tending horses all week looking for a fleeting moment of human connection.
Every role is perfectly cast, sensitively observed, and naturally performed. Watch as Dern sneaks back into work after a long lunch with her lover, her shirt untucked on one side. We can tell that’s unusual, but there’s something about the way she goes about her exasperated day that tells us it’s not the first time she’s let a small detail slip. Later, as her case files are used in a way loaded with danger, we wonder if her drive toward honesty is going to lead her to a bad outcome. (She confides she wishes she was man, but only so her professional life would be easier since a client would listen to her and say, “okay,” instead of continuing to debate.) Williams sneaks in a smoke before meeting her husband, then watches as he presses the old man to make a sale a little farther than she’s comfortable with. This is hardly a showy drama. It’s a story about the subtle pushes and pulls of an awkward encounter. They’re not saying all they could, or maybe should. Everyone has little secrets, small competitions, carefully tentative lines of inquiry.
The thematic strands of the first two stories coalesce in the last, and best. As the inexperienced teacher, Stewart looks uncomfortable with the gaze of the class on her. She shifts and squirms, consults her notes a bit too faithfully as she avoids direct eye contact. (She is cautious and self-conscious about opening up, as evident in a scene in a diner where she wipes her mouth with the napkin without unwrapping it from the silverware.) Gladstone – her open expressions and clenched voice, a shyness barely cracking open in the presence of what she feels, or hopes, is a kindred spirit – is desperate for someone to talk to. Her job isolates her in the fields and the barns, hard work for poverty wages. She looks forward to the class not because she’s passionate about the subject – truth be told, she’s not even technically enrolled – but because she likes exchanging small talk with the instructor. It comes to a head with a long drive, and an agonizingly heavy pause.
Here’s a film with its key capstone suspense sequence simply a long silence while the audience – if on the right wavelength – stretches in rapt engagement wondering if someone will close the gap and say what they need to say. All three stories patiently consider hushed, routine, repetitive lives into which sudden emotional surprises build slowly to small shifts in approach or understanding. It’s an entire feature spun out from a recognizable, relatable, small but fraught instant: the tremulous moment where you’re standing across from a person you’d like to know better and just can’t find the words to bridge the distance. Reichardt has cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt frame the proceedings with a calm camera, aware of the vast the landscapes and the psychological distances between people. She is a tender filmmaker whose restraint has a relaxed rigor. She tells stories of everyday life for people on the margins – at a forest retreat (Old Joy), in poverty (Wendy and Lucy), on the Oregon Trail (Meek’s Cutoff), and in an eco-terrorist enclave (Night Moves). In each, her close attention to the smallest of shifts in mood and demeanor subtly and respectfully draws out the profundity of lived experiences. Certain Women is her best work to date.