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Kristen Stewart plays a young lawyer in Certain Women.

In the third act of Certain Women, a solitary Montana ranch hand drives into town pursuing another young woman, a lawyer she recently met. While she's standing in the wrong law office making inquiries, one of the film's other central characters walks through the scene on her way to work.

There is no other plot connection between the first and third acts of Kelly Reichardt's delicate, intelligent and refreshing new feature: anyone approaching it looking for conventional narrative tidiness is going to be frustrated. Instead, as Reichardt weaves together three short stories by the American writer Maile Meloy, she creates more subtle links in a film whose structure and themes gently echo each other with a resonance that still vibrates long after the screen has gone dark.

If Certain Women is quietly episodic, however, it is not without drama. Its first story concerns Laura (Laura Dern), a small-town lawyer who has to manoeuvre her way through a hostage-taking after a disgruntled client goes postal. Her client is lonely, misunderstood and frustrated … but then so is Laura and she's not reaching for her gun. Instead, in Dern's firm and sensitive portrayal, she is a sad but sensible figure apparently accepting both a job and a romance that can't fulfill her.

I say apparently because the motivations and back stories of Reichardt's characters are never revealed. The independent American filmmaker, previously recognized for Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves, has penned a provocative script in which there is barely a word of exposition.

The second story is particularly notable for action in which the characters never utter a single line for the benefit of the audience – no explanations, no justifications, no speeches.

In this section, fresh from equally demanding if louder work in Manchester by the Sea, Michelle Williams plays a middle-class urbanite spending weekends in a tent in the woods on a lot where her husband is building her a country house. There is open discord between her and her teenage daughter and secrets between her and her husband; Williams plays her as someone who is coping well with significant stress, suggesting a deep well of frustration without every plunging the bucket into it.

The severity of the situation is unknowable and that is part of its appealing suspense. A scene in which the husband and wife try to buy the ruins of an old schoolhouse from an elderly neighbour so they can reuse the stone fairly bristles with the unstated tensions between wealthy outsiders and poorer locals.

With the third act, the power of Reichardt's elliptical approach becomes apparent. Newcomer Lily Gladstone plays the ranch hand, stuck entirely alone in the country tending to her horses. Kristen Stewart is a young lawyer from town who has naively committed to driving a four-hour commute so that she can teach a night course in education law to a group of cantankerous school teachers. Spotting people entering the school, the rancher simply follows the lawyer into the classroom seeking company.

As this couple – potential friends or lovers perhaps– struggles to form, Reichardt draws achingly sad work from her actors, coaching Gladstone on how to cast her open, almost transparent performance to one side of Stewart, whose signature sullenness is put to much better purpose here than in her many lesser outings. Indeed, Stewart does an intriguing job creating a paradoxical character who explains herself without giving of herself, her very persona exposing the false promise of personal exposition.

Against the landscape of Montana's spreading plains and big skies, the traditional Western backdrop for the solitary trails of many a lonesome cowboy, these certain women are also lonely souls in motion. They are independent and unaligned, in contact but not in communion with those at hand. What better way to reveal their state than in three linked stories that refuse to make a pretty whole?

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