Lawrence Toppman

‘Certain Women’ takes uncertain approach until terrific finale

Michelle Williams plays a woman who wants to build a wall of her Montana home with native sandstone in “Certain Women.”
Michelle Williams plays a woman who wants to build a wall of her Montana home with native sandstone in “Certain Women.” IFC Films

In an ideal world, movies would run exactly the length they ought to be, and theaters would connect them to provide a full evening of entertainment. That way, a powerful story such as the one concluding “Certain Women” – a searingly quiet depiction of small town loneliness that runs about 45 minutes – wouldn’t need to be tied to two episodes that don’t get us anywhere emotionally.

Writer-director-editor Kelly Reichardt adapted stories by Maile Maloy. Reichardt begins with Laura Wells (Laura Dern), an attorney who advises a client (Jared Harris) that signing a compensation agreement with his boss prevents him from suing for more medical costs. He becomes more and more distraught until he takes a hostage, and the cops ask her to intervene.

In the second, Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) visits a reclusive older man (Rene Auberjonois) to ask for mounds of stone in his yard, which she’d use for a wall in her new home. He says he’ll probably give it to her, though her husband (James LeGros) doesn’t seem supportive. (The husband is having an affair with attorney Wells, though this leads nowhere dramatically.)

Both episodes feel true to life but inconsequential. The armed man inspires neither pity nor anxiety: We never think he might shoot someone, so we wait for the situation to resolve. (And who signs an agreement barring further claims and then goes to a lawyer?) I couldn’t imagine why we’d care about Gina or anyone else in her episode.

Then came the longest segment, which bowled me over. A woman identified in the credits as The Rancher (Lily Gladstone) wanders into a night school, aimlessly following other people, and sits down in a class taught by young attorney Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart). They chat afterward in a diner, where the attorney laments her extraordinarily improbable circumstances: She drives four hours each way twice a week to teach this class.

The Rancher, who works in solitude on a horse farm, lights up in the presence of a new friend in these after-class meetings. Though Reichardt never says anything overtly – she rarely does in any films – The Rancher may be falling in love with a woman who scarcely seems aware of her.

Though all three segments take place in Montana, cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt really exploits the beautiful, wintry inhospitality of Big Sky Country in the last one. As we watch The Rancher go about her equine duties, sustained by the promise of a burgeoning relationship, we realize the blush in her cheeks doesn’t come just from the frosty air. (Gladstone gives one of the best nonverbal performances I have seen in a while.)

There’s a vague connection among the narratives: Characters want something without being able to get through to the persons who may help them get it. But what “Certain Women” is really about is a filmmaker who had one marvelous story to tell and linked it to 45 minutes of filler to make a feature film.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Certain Women’


Cast: Lily Gladstone, Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart.

Writer-director: Kelly Reichardt.

Length: 107 minutes.

Rating: R (language).