Montana Story, 2021.
Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel.
Starring Haley Lu Richardson, Owen Teague, Kimberly Guerrero, Gilbert Owuor, Asivak Koostachin, and Eugene Brave Rock.
Two estranged siblings return home to the sprawling ranch they once knew and loved, only to confront a deep and bitter family legacy. The fates of their ailing, unscrupulous father and a beloved old horse hang in the balance.
Inexplicably Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s first film in nine years since the release of their masterful 2012 divorce drama What Maisie Knew, Montana Story is a visually majestic and utterly worthy follow-up, approaching familial discord through an entirely different yet no-less-captivating lens.
Cal Thorne (Owen Teague) has returned home to the family ranch in Montana to preside over his father Wade, who lies in an irreversible coma following a stroke. With the ranch in deep financial straits, Cal goes about liquidating any remaining assets in order to fund his father’s continuing care, and also decides to euthanise the family’s 25-year-old horse, Mr. T, who is nearing the end of his life.
But when Cal’s estranged sister Erin (Haley Lu Richardson) makes a surprise return from her far-flung life in upstate New York to see her father one last time, she also discovers Cal’s intentions with Mr. T and vows to ensure the horse instead finds a new home.
This is an intimate story with an epic, breathtaking scope, set at a methodical pace across the backdrop of a vast Montana mountain range. But that setting wasn’t merely selected for its picturesque allure; in many ways this is a revisionist western no matter its lack of gunfights. The reason for Erin’s absence from her family is only revealed later in the film, the fallout of which challenges traditional notions and expectations of masculine “heroism,” as Cal must reckon with the act which caused Erin to flee.
Even with the presence of smartphones, mentions of both Verizon and Venmo, and a radio station referencing the Dakota Access Pipeline, there’s a mostly timeless quality to the drama on offer here, the elderly horse a tidy-yet-effective embodiment of old ways passing on, and also a sliver of Cal and Erin’s withering family life that can perhaps be reclaimed for now.
While subversive westerns have used America’s gorgeous frontier to mournfully examine the demise of the Old West for decades, here that wistfulness is turned inwards towards the family, as the at-odds siblings try to make peace with a past defined by their father’s monstrous, abusive ways. The complexities of this dynamic are slowly unfurled over the course of the picture, yet in matter-of-fact fashion without a hint of melodramatic dishiness.
These dives into the siblings’ fraught history can feel a little expository as written, using their father’s nurse Ace (Gilbert Owuor) as effectively an audience surrogate conduit, enough that at one point Ace even appears to make a vaguely meta joke about this, telling Cal, “Some things are obvious without explanation.” The piece as a whole is ultimately so moving and compellingly acted, though, that it’s tough to begrudge some occasionally prosaic dialogue.
At the forefront are a pair of beautifully subdued performances from Teague and Richardson. Teague is terrific as the curt, wounded Cal, who sums up his feelings on his father in one brutal moment where he tells him, “You lived life as though it were a burden. Perhaps being dead will be better.”
Richardson is remarkable as the nervy Erin, fearfully digging up her traumatic past. Together the pair have wonderful chemistry, both in the more combative squabbles and periodic expressions of love. Gilbert Owuor also provides some light relief as the sardonic Kenyan nurse Ace, and there’s a small but nicely lived-in role for Eugene Brave Rock as Mukki, a Mohican local who sells Erin a truck in order to transport Mr. T.
It’s a critical cliche but absolutely true, that the film’s scenery really feels as much a character of the piece as the flesh-and-blood people. The enveloping Montana scenery is so stunning it’s easy to say it does all the heavy lifting for veteran DP Giles Nuttgens, but his artful framing of every moment makes the absolute most of the sparse, dreamy landscape. Of course, the filmmakers just couldn’t resist offering their own brief homage to the iconic doorway shot from John Ford’s The Searchers, with Cal taking a long, lingering stroll out of the ranch’s barn door early on.
The sound work is fairly subdued throughout, but the howl of the wind whipping through the mountains really helps transport the audience there. Kevin Morby’s well-placed musical score, comprised mostly of tender guitar licks, meanwhile combines with occasional sentimental country tunes to cement that old-but-new western vibe.
Overall Montana Story may not offer many surprises, but when a story is this tenderly and skillfully told, does it really need to? An affecting, elegiac western drama about sibling healing that’s shot with eye-watering artistry by DP Giles Nuttgens, and acted with brilliantly subtle restraint by Owen Teague and Haley Lu Richardson.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.