Michelle Williams in Certain Women

Indie filmmaker Kelly Reichardt has made a career out of the saying “Wherever you go, there you are.” A naturalist at heart, she observes her characters intently as they roll into new environments, size up their surroundings, and try to conquer them. Her breakthrough film, Old Joy (2006), follows two old pals on a road trip to a wilderness hot spring, where their friendship blooms again, and back to the city, where it withers. Her remarkable Wendy and Lucy (2008) makes a giant statement about economic injustice in America through the tiny story of a young woman stranded in a small town. Meek’s Cutoff (2010) dramatizes the 1845 incident in which a frontier guide named Stephen Meek led a wagon train full of settlers on a perilous journey through the Oregon desert. And in the sadly overlooked Night Moves (2013), scruffy ecoterrorists scout out a hydroelectric dam, disable it with an explosion, and try without success to melt back into their previous lives.

Reichardt has developed a loyal following based on those four features, though less attention has gone to her screenwriting collaborator, Jon Raymond, whose short stories provided source material for both Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. With Certain Women, Reichardt is flying solo and having a rough time of it. The earlier movies unfolded in Oregon, where the majesty of the forest can plunge characters deep into themselves, but the new film, adapted from a trio of short stories by Maile Meloy, takes place in Montana, a harsher and lonelier terrain to which some of the characters have already surrendered. Reichardt presents character studies of a beleaguered attorney, a grasping wife, and a lovelorn ranch hand, yet their stories are slow-paced and clumsily integrated. For the most part, these narratives lack the kind of tension between character and setting that have made Reichardt’s quiet, modest, measured films so compelling.

Certain Women opens with a panoramic long shot of an approaching freight train, whose lonely horn sounds in the distance and then explodes into a Doppler effect as the train passes through the frame. For Laura Wells (Laura Dern), an attorney at a Livingston firm, life seems just as rigidly tracked, and she’s in the process of following one client to his ultimate destination. Fuller (Jared Harris), an aging construction worker, has suffered a disabling fall and wants to sue the contractor who’s responsible, despite the fact that he has already accepted an insurance settlement. Frustrated in his plans, he storms the contractor’s offices one night, taking a security guard hostage, and Laura is enlisted by the local police to go inside the building and reason with him. The open spaces of the early scenes give way to inky black interiors, and a situation that most other filmmakers would play for suspense turns into a sleepy sequence in which Laura sits in the office reading Fuller all the documents from his company file.

Reichardt manages to connect this first story with the second when Ryan (James Le Gros), Laura’s lover, is revealed to be the guilt-ridden husband of the frosty Gina (Michelle Williams). The spouses and their crabby daughter, who live in the city but have purchased land for a second home, arrive at the farmhouse of their octogenarian neighbor, Albert (René Auberjonois), for a friendly visit that conceals an avaricious plan: Gina, full of ideas for their house, wants Albert to sell her a pile of sandstone blocks that were once part of a historic schoolhouse but have been parked on his property for 40 years. Her emotional maneuvering with the old man, so nicely rendered in Meloy’s story “Native Sandstone,” doesn’t really come across onscreen, and Reichardt has beefed up the episode with vague family conflicts, though these are so muted they barely break the surface of the dialogue. A contemplative scene of Gina strolling alone through the woods may call to mind Williams’s touching performance as the young drifter in Wendy and Lucy, yet she plays a tougher, shallower person this time around.

Only the third and last story approaches the emotional force of Reichardt’s earlier work. Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a young woman who tends horses at a ranch, happens into a night-school class in small-town Belfry and falls head over heels for the instructor, Beth (Kristen Stewart), a young attorney from far-off Livingston. In Meloy’s story “Travis, B.” the ranch hand is a man pursuing a woman, but by turning it into a sweet tale of lesbian infatuation in a red state, Reichardt only heightens its loneliness and poignance. More than the other stories, this one exploits the friction between the characters and their environment: Beth endures a four-hour commute each way to teach the semiweekly class, and finally she bails out, handing the class over to a replacement. Jamie tracks her down at her firm in Livingston, but what she wants from Beth is impossible. As in Reichardt’s best movies, who you are is powerfully constrained by where you are.  v