Montana Story, 2022.
Written and Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel.
Starring Haley Lu Richardson, Owen Teague, Kimberly Guerrero, Eugene Brave Rock, Gilbert Owuor, Kate Britton, and Asivak Koostachin.
Two estranged siblings return home to the sprawling ranch they once knew and loved, confronting a deep and bitter family legacy against a mythic American backdrop.
It’s safe to say that following Montana Story (and a great film called To Leslie I encourage you to see at any upcoming festival you can), Owen Teague has joined the ranks of his co-star Haley Lu Richardson as one of the generation’s premiere actors. Both often find themselves in ritually contextualized character work. The latest from writers and directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (conceiving the story alongside Mike Spreter) is no exception (the filmmakers are responsible for remarkable works such as custody drama What Maisie Knew) is no exception. However, they should be gracious for having these outstanding rising stars aboard, considering the story’s snail-pacing is occasionally a barrier.
This slow burn is necessary because of mundane life on the sprawling ranch setting and seven years of unspoken emotional turmoil bubbling under the surface between estranged siblings Erin and Cal (Richardson and Teague, respectively). They have reunited, both coming home to the titular Montana ranch of their father weighed, now deep into a coma and looked after by a Kenyan nurse (a warm and compassionate Gilbert Owuor, remaining so even when divulged unflattering details regarding the past of the man he is caring for). Nicknamed Ace (the character’s full name is not listed online, and I’m not even going to bother making an ass out of myself trying to spell it), this nurse also has sage-like wisdom, at one point telling the siblings that although he is barely alive with the assistance of medical machines, their father’s life is completed. Nothing more can be added to that past.
Montana Story is about untangling that past, confronting it, and processing it. Their father was violently abusive, and Cal, who was only 15 years old at the time his 18-year-old sister had had enough and ran away, never contacting him again until this bleak reunion, is saddled with regret over not always doing as much as he could to defend and protect his sister. Dad was also a shady lawyer who looked the other way of the government and made life harder for indigenous people on the land. Sticking with the personal, the last straw came when dad entered into a violent rage one night against Erin, also psychotically murdering her horse (for transparency, none of this is depicted in flashbacks, which is a wise choice and shows confidence in the chemistry of the central leads). Cal saw most of this, reacting with fear.
Owen Teague and Haley Lu Richardson wear this baggage over every tensely quiet, emotionally strained dialogue exchange as they try their best (well, one of them) to reconnect while figuring out their feelings toward their dying father, who inflicted nothing but damage. Also in the mix is Mr. Ed, a family horse in its twilight years that also happens to be the same age as Erin. In conjunction with selling off assets, including the ranch, Cal has taken it upon himself to arrange to put down the horse. When Erin catches wind of this knowledge, she expressively pushes back to the point of purchasing a trailer to bring the horse back with her to upstate New York.
Again, Montana Story remains compelling despite its glacial pacing and familiar storytelling terrain due to the acting; from the second these characters are reunited, there is much for them (and us) to learn, with some passing details somewhat recontextualizing their motives. One might be led to believe that the horse bears sentimental value to Erin or that she may be an animal lover, and I’m sure she does care about the horse to an extent; her reactions go much deeper than that, and she’s not afraid to snap a chicken’s neck in preparation for cooking dinner.
Nevertheless, the undercurrent of inner pain, torment, and bitterness inevitably come to a head in an appropriately devastating fashion, reinforcing how damn good Haley Lu Richardson and Owen Teague are here. There are asides and supporting characters bringing Native Americans into the fold, possible former lovers peppering further intrigue into these past lives, and a visually captivating visit to a huge hole that, to Erin, brings to mind Dante’s Inferno. Montana Story feels like hell for these characters, and we can only hope they find (and make) some peace.
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