It's inherently admirable when a filmmaker reaches beyond their established strengths to try something new, as Kelly Reichardt has done with Certain Women. The downside is that a director abandoning their strengths runs the risk that their new thing will be, well, not as strong, and this has kind of also happened to Reichardt. Her primary strengths, as I see them, are three: a preposterously strong and definite sense of place, centered on the area around Portland, Oregon; plots that unfold so slowly that you almost cannot detect movement until you get to the end of the feature and realize that you're not where you started anymore; and being far and away Michelle Williams's best director. That last one might sound trivial, but not to anybody who's seen Reichardt's 2008 feature Wendy and Lucy, and knows just how life-altering a great Michelle Williams performance can be.

Certain Women eschews two of those things. Williams is still in the film, thank God, though giving I think the least invigorating of her three performances to date for Reichardt (the second was in 2010's Meek's Cutoff). Hell, it's not even Williams's best performance in a 2016 film. But it's always a pleasure to see this team-up, so let's not grouse. As for the other two major shifts to Reichardt's regular MO: Certain Women takes place in Montana, which isn't much on the face of it to a popular culture that regards everything south of Canada, north of California, and west of the Dakotas as sort of that big chunk in the northwest of the United States that's all sort of the same place, with Portland and Seattle plugged into it. But Livingston, where Certain Women was shot, is hundreds of miles away from Reichardt's stomping grounds, and it really is a different place altogether. I won't go so far as to say that "hurts" the movie, but there's a gulf between the microscopic precision of Old Joy (Reichardt's 2006 breakthrough) or the tangible geography of Wendy and Lucy on the one hand, and Certain Women's "this takes place in the American West" vagueness, and it certainly doesn't benefit the new film (Meek's Cutoff, I should mention, similarly likes the hyper-precision of Reichardt at her best, but there it closely ties into the lost feeling baked into the scenario).

And as for the glacial development of story, well, the least we can say about Certain Women is that it's in no hurry. I think if I were to sit most average viewers in front of the film and say "my big complaint is that it moves too fast", almost all of them would conclude that I had lost my fucking mind. But it really does move fast. The thing is, Certain Women is, functionally, an anthology film, adapting three short stories by Montana author Maile Meloy (it's the first time since the 1990s that Reichardt is making a feature without screenwriter Jonathan Raymond, which perhaps is part of its general "less-than" feeling), and that leaves an average of about 35 minutes per segment. In practice, the third segment is considerably longer than the others, and it is 100% not a coincidence that the third segment is considerably better, as well. The point being, 35 minutes isn't actually long enough to engage in the immensely sedate pacing that is Reichardt's most consistent trait as a filmmaker, and the movie feels quite a lot less special than her earlier films as a result.

Which isn't to say that it's bad. If nothing else, it has a tremendously admirable cast: Laura Dern plays the first of our certain women, also named Laura, followed by Williams (as Gina) and the extraordinary newcomer Lily Gladstone (as Jamie), and the most important side characters are played by Jared Harris, James Le Gros, Rene Auberjonois, and Kristen Stewart. There's a lot of talent in there, especially divided between the leads, who are entirely up for the director's characteristic interest in letting reaction shots, things unsaid, and details as subtle as where an actor chooses to look when they're delivering lines, do all the work of establishing character and conflict. The acting leaves little to be desired, with even the side characters getting numerous chances to do the same infinitesimally nuanced character work. Gladstone and Dern are the easy MVPs of the film for me, though it's really not for lack of richness anywhere.

And the stories... look, anthology films almost aren't supposed to bat 1.000; Certain Women definitely doesn't. The first sequence is strong enough, with Laura, a lawyer, dealing with an intransigent client, Fuller (Harris), who doesn't understand that he'll never win his disability suit thanks to arbitrary but nonetheless real rules of procedure (in this very feminist film's only overt declaration of theme, Laura complains on the phone that her client only needed to be told once by a male lawyer what the situation was). So he takes a security guard hostage, and it falls to Laura to take him down, in an aimless, brazenly under-lit sequence that gloriously typifies what Reichardt's best work can be: nothing but minute after minute of characters talking and half-listening to each other, with Dern's tired face fluctuating indefinitely between annoyance and pity. It's a bit inconclusive - Certain Women thrives on being inconclusive - and feels more like an anecdote than a character sketch, but it's a pretty fine showcase for Dern and Harris to spin out their studies of halfhearted sadness (this sequence also commits the one thing I'd identify as an outright mistake: Reichardt shifts to Fuller's POV, the only time in the film that we identify with anyone besides the three main women).

The second sequence is even more inconclusive, and not such a fine showcase: Gina and her husband Ryan (Le Gros), who we briefly saw earlier having an affair with Laura (this is not a film that cares very hard about drawing connections between its sequences, however), have dragged their understandably irritated teenage daughter (Sara Rodier) to the deep country, where they attempt to negotiated with an old homesteader, Albert (Auberjonois) to buy the pile of sandstone he has on his property; he is plainly uncomfortable talking to Gina directly, and she spends the whole time clamping down on her tetchy impatience, and the whole thing is very literary, and not in the sense that makes for good cinema. It's all rather inert, and a bit muddled in what it wants us to think about its characters, and neatly demonstrates the difference between slowly inhabiting a scene, like the climax to Laura's story, and simply refusing to cut while a scene goes no place.

The film picks up immensely as it enters the home stretch, with the story of the isolated rancher Jamie, and her shy infatuation with Beth (Stewart), driving hours into the country to teach a class on school law to a room full of teachers who have a tendency to ask the very worst questions. It's a perfect little slice-of-life sequence, with Gladstone's viscerally engaging performance of the awkwardness of having a crush and not quite being able to tell if it's reciprocated driving a wonderfully humane little romance. The editing, by Reichardt herself, is unusually propulsive, especially in curtly eliding the details of Beth's class, and generally rushing time along to give us a keen subjective sense of how occasionally seeing Beth turns out to be the defining aspect of Jamie's bored, lonely days. It's generous and nice, not in any pejorative way, but because of how fully the film commits to depicting the characters as worthwhile, interesting people, treating this tiny little scenario with seriousness and sincerity. If the first two strands of Certain Women had anything like focus and easygoing pacing of the third, we might be talking about one of the year's great films. As it is, the film has the decency to end well (or not quite: the three-part epilogue is honestly a bit spurious), and that helps to make the vagueness of the first two stories easier to embrace.