Emerging from a dark screen to the sound of an American Indian jingle dress, a train moves through Montana’s Paradise Valley at dawn. Kelly Reichardt’s restrained technique de-mythologizes this image at the beginning of Certain Women (2016), while we watch the miles-long freighter creep along as the credits roll. For Reichardt, this oft-romanticized place becomes the ground upon which to paint a deceptively simple portrait.
A lawyer (Laura Dern) has a client who just wants her to tell him what he wants to hear; a mother (Michelle Williams), trying to build her dream house, struggles to acquire native sandstone from an old resident with little help from her dinky husband and angsty daughter; a ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) is totally isolated until she finds someone to simply sit with, a recent law grad (Kristen Stewart), who took a night school job not knowing there’d be a four-hour commute.
Certain Women’s triptych is perhaps the apotheosis of Reichardt’s quietly political reflections upon people on the brink of literal, emotional, and spiritual poverty. Her characters all find themselves trapped in expectations society has placed upon them—Dern’s womanhood is perceived before her quality as a lawyer, Williams’s drive is seen as bitchiness, and Stewart’s aspirations clash with her family’s service industry roots.
In a place usually reserved for men to fight tooth and nail to maintain their gruffness, Reichardt hones in on the lives of the women in the American west who, like everyone else, are just trying to get by—the setting doesn’t just evoke the west’s iconism but places it within the familiar. Lily Gladstone’s rancher, perhaps the most important of Reichardt’s women and one who strays furthest from Maile Meloy’s source material, best personifies this. She is the only Native character in the film, and her quiet nature plays on the “stoic Indian” stereotype, even if she’d rather have someone to talk to than not. After she drives hours through the night to see Stewart again and realizes the impossibility of their worlds coming together, Gladstone’s loneliness seems pre-ordained. While this may be the case, the film’s finale implies that this does not deter her drive nor the drive of any of the other certain women.