Kelly Reichardt’s “River of Grass” premiered at the Sundance International Film Festival over twenty years ago, and has been restored for inclusion in the “Collection” Program of this year’s fest before an imminent theatrical re-release. Over the two decades since, Reichardt has become one of the most important voices in American cinema, delivering great film after great film, including “Old Joy,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Meek’s Cutoff” and “Night Moves.” And so now she returns to Sundance something of a conquering hero, a chronicler of the American landscape so essential to the international film world that the premiere of her latest film was also the first time she was in the “big house” in Park City, the 1,270-seat Eccles Theatre. Obtaining the primetime slot was probably easier with the biggest “name” cast that Reichardt has ever employed. It’s a dream team of actresses, fronted by Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart. Yet any concern that “Certain Women” is in any way Reichardt “selling out” to the mainstream to get more eyes on her films should be dismissed. “Certain Women” is arguably Reichardt’s most deliberate, slow-paced, subtle film to date, proof that this incredibly talented filmmaker’s distinct voice is still essential.
Easily loglined as “A Montana ‘Short Cuts’”,” “Certain Women” adapts three short stories by American fiction writer Maile Meloy. They all take place in a small Montana town, and all feel part of Reichardt’s vision of a world that doesn’t stop moving for human need. Reichardt has always displayed a stunning gift for capturing nature, but her use of the constant flow of existence around her characters in “Certain Women” is one of its most captivating aspects. The film opens with a train moving through this small town (and you can hear its horn in the background near-constantly for the first segment), and Reichardt regularly uses similar devices of elements that go past our characters from a river in the middle of nowhere to so many shots of cars in the distance traveling along a freeway. It’s as if she’s making us aware of the relative smallness of her stories—gentle, nuanced studies of people that the rest of the world, human and natural, just speeds by.
The first story of “Certain Women” stars Laura Dern as a lawyer who is having an affair with a married man (James Le Gros) and returns one day to her office to meet a client (Jared Harris) who is at the end of his rope. The man was disabled in a workplace accident but then accepted an insurance payment, nullifying his ability to sue his company. He can’t work at all because he has double vision from the accident, but he refuses to take his attorney’s sad advice to give it up. They travel to another personal injury attorney who tells him the same thing Dern’s character has for months—but he needed to hear it from a man—and then essentially breaks down.
After the first narrative seems to have reached its conclusion, we move across town to a married couple (Michelle Williams and Le Gros) who are breaking ground on a new home, visiting an old friend (Rene Auberjonois) in the hope that he’ll give them sandstone that has been sitting in his front yard for years. This arguably transitional center story gives way to the film’s most triumphant segment, the story of a ranch hand (breakthrough Lily Gladstone) who happens upon a class in School Law being taught by an out-of-towner (Kristen Stewart). The lonely woman doesn’t care about the class; she’s more interested in the teacher. They go out to eat after every class, and Reichardt lyrically captures the arc of a daily life of routine as the woman goes about the business of working a farm, waiting for the next time she can see the new person in her life.
“Certain Women” has no direct, this-is-what-this-is-about moments. It will be frustratingly opaque for some viewers who need more periods than ellipses in their work. And yet themes feel like they emerge organically from the characters and setting. There’s a sense of inevitability to these stories, from the man who fought against the fact that he never had a way out of his legal predicament to the sandstone that once held so much promise for another man but now lays in a pile, to the poignant ending of the tale of a woman whose days are largely indistinguishable from each other until she meets someone new. There are also subtle details to be appreciated when it comes to gender roles. Dern’s character is an attorney whose client wants to use her more than listen to her; Williams’ is a business owner who doesn’t get the same respect as her husband; Stewart’s attorney/teacher works multiple jobs and drives hours to get to an unrewarding one.
What a lot of people miss about Reichardt as they’re praising her lyrical sense of the space of this world is her ability with actors. None of the performers in “Certain Women” are given much time and yet they all make an impact. Jared Harris hasn’t been this good in years, but the film belongs to the women—Dern, Stewart, and Gladstone, in particular. Williams isn’t bad—she never is—but her narrative feels the least satisfying, the arguable weakness of the film, although in some ways it ties together the business aspects of the first story with the landscape of the last one. Stewart and Gladstone give the most affecting performances, turns driven more by internal monologue than proclamations.
Watching “Certain Women” in conjunction with “River of Grass” makes for an inevitable comparison—how has this filmmaker changed or progressed from her first Sundance film to her last? “River of Grass,” the story of a bored young woman in the Florida Everglades named Cozy (Lisa Bowman) who meets a local schmuck named Lee (Larry Fessenden), is a much broader exercise, even bringing mind to “Raising Arizona” at times in the wacky stupidity of its central characters (“I didn’t know much about hold-ups and Lee didn’t want me getting in the way of his crime spree"). It’s almost like “Bonnie Clyde rewritten by Carl Hiaasen.” Like a lot of mid-‘90s cinema, it thinks there’s more value in malaise than there is but I like Fessenden’s loose work and Reichardt’s sense of humor. And it’s not much of a spoiler to say that “River of Grass” ends with an extended shot of a freeway, cars blending together and heading off over the horizon. Twenty years later, “Certain Women” offers a deeper, more ambitious examination of that flow of humanity, but it’s been there since the very beginning.