The films of Kelly Reichardt tend to sneak up on you. Since her 1994 debut, "River of Grass," the American director's films have been distinct in their quiet, sparsely plotted nature. With her hyper-realist style, Reichardt tends to forgo big, emotional moments in favor of clear-eyed character portraits filled with the kind of tiny, perfectly observed details whose power don't always hit you right away; often not until the film has ended, sometimes even later. The director's latest, "Certain Women," continues that pattern.
Inspired by a trio of short stories by author Maile Meloy, the film is told in triptych, presenting three barely-connected stories about women making their own way in rural Montana. The first story revolves around Laura (the always wonderful Laura Dern), a lawyer contending with a disgruntled client named Fuller (Jared Harris), who was injured in a workplace accident. Because he accepted a settlement, he finds that he can't sue for more money now that the larger-than-expected medical bills have left him penniless. Despite the sound of it, this is the most comedic of the stories, as Laura maintains her wry sense of humor as the situation escalates.
The second focuses on Gina (Michelle Williams, a frequent collaborator with Reichardt) as a wife and mother who, along with her husband Ryan (James LeGros), is building her dream home out in the country. She wants to buy an old, seemingly forgotten pile of sandstone slabs from an elderly landowner named Albert (Rene Auberjonois), but feels that Ryan's wishy-washy behavior is undermining her efforts. This is the least developed of the stories, but Williams makes the most of it.
The final story is the most moving, following an isolated ranch hand (an extraordinary newcomer by the name of Lily Gladstone) who on a whim sits in on a night class about student law, and finds herself captivated by the shy law-school grad who teaches it (Kristen Stewart). Stewart continues to prove that, away from blockbusters like the "Twilight" series or "Snow White and the Huntsman," she's quite a gifted actor.
Not a whole lot "happens" in any these stories, but each one is told with such empathy and attention to both character and place that they're completely captivating. Like the characters at the center of each of its stories -- each one in her own way searching for a connection, or at the very least recognition -- the film gradually grows a steely, quiet strength.