Montana Story movie review & film summary (2022)

Owen Teague (of “Bloodline” and “The Stand”) stars as Cal, a young man who returns to his family home to take charge of the estate of his dying father, who’s been in a coma following a stroke. He’s soon joined by his half-sister Erin (Haley Lu Richardson of “Ravenswood”), who’s been estranged from the family for years following her rebellion against their father. Without giving too much away, suffice to say that the father’s betrayals are in tune with a tradition that snakes through film noir and revisionist Westerns and plugs into the tradition of ancient Greek tragedy: the violence and sorry that separated Erin from the family is directly related to the father’s betrayal of legal, ethical, and moral codes, and all of this is folded into a more skeptical view of American history than is taught in most public schools. 

There’s a long, thoughtful sequence in which the siblings stare at a gaping and entirely pointless hole in the earth that their father’s legal and business advice helped a mining corporation dig, and Erin schools her brother on the circles of Hell described in Dante’s Inferno and relates them back to the history of their family and the state that’s superficially and evasively defined to schoolchildren mainly through praise for its “big skies.” But the filmmakers take care not to let the situations become too abstract, always relating them back to the siblings and their family homestead and the economics of the surrounding community, factors that also affect their housekeeper Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero), their father’s nurse, a Kenyan immigrant nicknamed Ace (Gilbert Owuour), and their father’s increasingly decrepit horse, which Cal has decided to put to sleep but that Erin instead decides to relocate to upstate New York. (Erin’s fixation on saving the horse is a redemptive, history-rewriting move that relates directly to her own trauma at the hands of the father.)

It might be asking too much of viewers who are increasingly conditioned to relate only to big-budget intellectual property-driven fantasies packed with Easter eggs and teasers to sit still for a nearly two-hour, self-contained story about the emotional and economic problems of a rural Montana family, especially since the movie is less than perfect, and tends to err on the side of being modest and unassuming (even the breathtaking natural vistas are photographed in a matter-of-fact way). But there are many rewards to be found here, not the least of which is a skill at staging scenes with beginnings, middles, and ends that are entirely dependent upon the subtle interactions of a few actors who live or die on the basis of the words they’ve been given to speak, and the silences they’ve been encouraged to inhabit. 

Now playing in theaters.

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