In the newest film from writer-director Kelly Reichardt, she focuses on the small stories of three women in rural Montana. The first is Laura Dern, playing a small-town lawyer who finds herself the target of sexism as she tries to help an injured client, beautifully played by Jared Harris, get compensation for his injury. The second is Michelle Williams, struggling to relate to her teenage daughter and to procure sandstone (no, really) in order to build a house. The third is Lily Gladstone, as a lonely ranch-hand who finds herself forging a surprising friendship with Kristen Stewart’s character, a young law clerk. Just in that quick summary, I have given the impression that there is more plot to this film than there actually is. This movie isn’t slow; it’s almost perfectly still. This is a movie that just about everyone will call dull or boring, but it isn’t. It’s a masterpiece, another masterpiece from Reichardt, one of the most significant women in film history. You can always count on her for stories so small no one else will tell them from perspectives ignored by everyone else. Certainly, it’s hard to come up with another movie this year where four of the top five characters were female. If you care about gender issues in film, that’s reason enough to see this movie, but it’s actually one of the least important reasons. Reichardt captures the starkness of these women’s lives to perfection with her methodical camera work, her long takes and her insistence on minimalism in just about every way. The script is sparse, particularly in the third section, where we go minutes at a time watching Gladstone do her winter duties around the deserted ranch without any dialogue at all. This is a movie a lot of people won’t have the patience for, but if you do, you’ll find incredible riches here. The performances are all very good. Dern is the most expressive of the four main actresses and her story is the most traditional; Michelle Williams is very minimal. But it’s the final section that you’ll walk out remembering and the amazing, naturalistic, beautifully insular performance by Lily Gladstone, a young Native actress with only a few credits to her name. No one’s ever going to be a star because of a performance in a Reichardt movie, and certainly not this one, but, to my mind, this is a star-making performance. Gladstone has now shot to the top of my list of actresses to keep an eye on. Kristen Stewart’s role is a small one, but she’s really wonderful as well. The final scene between Gladstone and Stewart is some of the best acting I’ve seen this year. Reichardt just has a way of drawing out really natural, really minimal performances that still evoke strong emotions. There’s a lengthy shot right after that scene that focuses on Gladstone’s face for a long, long time and it’s unbelievably moving. The film isn’t perfect, even if you’re willing to see its zenlike approach to plotting as a positive and not a negative. The film keeps the three stories basically separate, but the film goes past its natural end point to circle briefly back around to all three stories and in each case, I felt that the “ending” we’d already seen for each story was the better one, making the last five to ten minutes of the film feel unnecessary. I particularly wished the film had ended on a particular shot. There’s a beautiful shot of a pickup truck just slowly drifting to a stop in a vast, desolate field of dead winter grass and it sums up the lives of these women to absolute perfection, a life lived in the midst of desolation of various kinds, lived against a kind of quiet inertia. 4 stars.
tl;dr – so slow as to be nearly still, Reichardt’s hypnotic, beautiful film focuses on the everyday struggles of three women in rural Montana; a master-class in acting & deeply moving. 4 stars.