The Unknown Country, 2022.
Written and Directed by Morrisa Maltz.
Starring Lily Gladstone, Raymond Lee, Richard Ray Whitman, Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, Devin Shangreaux, Jasmine “Jazzy” Bearkiller Shangreaux, Pam Richter, Dale Leander Toller, Florence R. Perrin, and Scott Stamper.
A grieving woman embarks on an unexpected road trip from the Midwest toward the Texas-Mexico border as she grapples with the pain of her recent loss and seeks to understand her place in the world.
Seemingly in shock and detached, a woman enters her car with attention to go somewhere, anywhere. Curiously, she takes a handicapped parking sign off its placeholder, signifying either an invisible illness or perhaps caring for a disabled loved one. Her name is Tana (played with an abundance of grace and sold by Lily Gladstone), and The Unknown Country sees her grieving the loss of her grandmother. She is off to reconnect with her friends, the Oglala Lakota tribe, and her home roots on a journey of self-discovery along the Texas-Mexico border.
Aside from Lily Gladstone’s magnificently moving performance of memory, discovery, and simply having an active life again, a vital source of The Unknown Country‘s beauty comes from writer and director Morrisa Maltz’s creative decision to blend documentary into the drama. Not only does this heighten the organically lived-in feel of Lily Gladstone’s work, but much like the viewer, it places her in a state of observation as we learn and understand more about these people, primarily Native Americans, while also getting cultural insight into everything from their philosophies and weddings. These supporting characters all have a compelling story to tell, whether it be a waitress who values every one of her customers or various members of the Shangreaux family discussing life as parents and how they have handled loss.
The photography from Andrew Hajek is simultaneously striking, turning landmarks into places that become a piece of identity. Tana carries a photograph of her grandmother with her, unable to pinpoint exactly where it was taken. And while there is not much of a traditional plot to The Unknown Country, when this does come further into play, it makes for a beautifully cathartic sequence for both character and nature. There is also a sense of the here and now as Tana hears political coverage while driving, giving her more to ponder.
In small ways, The Unknown Country also dabbles in what it’s like to be a woman alone on the road and how that can occasionally be scary, potentially bringing about unwanted followers. However, there’s also an effort to show the bright spots of society and humanity, notably in one lively segment that brings Tana and some friendly strangers to a country dancing club.
This is minimalistic storytelling at its finest with outstanding work from Lily Gladstone. The stories from all involved are rich with personality, both fascinating and educational. Admittedly, it can take a little while before one feels involved, but this is also a swift and comforting 85 minutes. The Unknown Country is low-key majestic loveliness.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com