Is Kelly Reichardt the most under-acknowledged great director working in America right now? Her new movie, “Certain Women,” is one of the glories of this or any other year, but it stays true to Reichardt form, which is to say it’s low-key, allusive, lit up with implied meanings without ever leading us by the hand. And audiences like to be led by the hand — even those who style themselves art-house sophisticates generally prefer the comfortable upholstery of Things Happening.
In films like “Old Joy” (2006) and “Wendy and Lucy” (2008) and “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010), though, Reichardt observes men and women — mostly women — as they pass through the American West of the past and the present, trying to find their bearings. Their journeys are life-sized, careworn, and ordinary, and only gradually do you appreciate the ways in which they open up onto the extraordinary. Reichardt’s movies feel hand-crafted as few objects in our cultural parade do.
“Certain Women” is based on three short stories by the Montana-born and -raised Maile Meloy, and it’s both the filmmaker’s most satisfying work and, in some senses, her least satisfying. Reichardt interlocks the tales so that they overlap slightly — we see connections the characters never do — and each segment is so resonant with things unsaid that you want more of all of them. And yet what we get seems exactly enough.
“Certain Women” also allows a handful of excellent, under-served actors a prairie in which to roam. Laura Dern plays a lawyer in the small city/large town of Livingston, Mont., near Bozeman; we first see her in the indolent aftermath of a nooner with a married man and then back in her office, unruffled and professional, a half-tucked blouse the only evidence of a private life. (It’s a typical and telling Reichardt detail.) A client (Jared Harris, of “Mad Men”) has been screwed by the system, and she watches, as helpless as we, while his working-man’s pride collapses into sorrow and vengeful anger.
We meet Gina (Reichardt regular Michelle Williams), who’s also a professional of some sort and building a house in the backcountry with her affable slouch of a husband (James Le Gros) and surly teenage daughter (Sara Rodier). A visit to an old coot (the venerable character actor Rene Auberjonois, Father Mulcahy in Altman’s original “M*A*S*H*”) is a quiet tragicomedy of miscommunications as Gina speaks to him of buying some old sandstone blocks and he responds only to her husband. The movie acknowledges almost two centuries of pioneer history and women’s place in it that Gina is only partly aware of, even as we come to understand that no one here is taking her seriously, least of all her family.
In the third and most resonant story, a young woman named Jamie (Lily Gladstone) takes care of the horses on the far edge of a ranch; she works alone all week, then drives into town just to look at other people. Wandering into a night-time legal class, she’s drawn to the stressed-out, citified young teacher Beth (Kristen Stewart), and their friendship slowly comes to seem something like love, not that Jamie has words for such feelings and not that the teacher’s paying attention.
Stewart’s presence has gotten “Certain Women” a certain amount of buzz, obviously, but she keeps her performance as small and self-absorbed as it needs to be. It’s Gladstone, a young actress with Blackfeet and Nez Perce blood and a face that feels like unmapped territory, who you walk out of this movie remembering, especially for a long, emotionally overpowering close-up that virtually defines naturalistic screen acting.
True to Reichardt, nothing happens in that shot and everything does. There are actual events in “Certain Women” — there’s even a hostage crisis, of a sort — but the movie’s unspoken strength is the way it watches those events reflected in the faces of women as they carry on without ever articulating how or why. They just do. They just are. And, on some level never spoken, it’s just not fair.
Directed by Kelly Reichardt. Written by Reichhardt, based on short stories by Maile Meloy. Starring Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, Kristen Stewart. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner. 108 minutes. R (some language).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.