What goes into making a film, or a life? Is it the dark periods of our lives that we keep with us? Small pleasures strewn throughout that keep us going? These are the basic themes of legacy that swirl about in writer-director Morrisa Maltz’s feature debut The Unknown Country, starring Lily Gladstone of Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated forthcoming Killers of the Flower Moon and Erica Tremblay’s magnificent drama Fancy Dance.
It is a work that is filled with a subtle realism that builds on you until it lays you flat. It is an understated yet no less gripping road drama that is intertwined with some documentary aspects. It is a film about the modern American West and all the people who call it home, eschewing more traditional storytelling components in favor of embracing the experience of wandering the globe when all you have known has been upended.
Gladstone’s Tana is at the heart of this. She just lost her grandma, whom she had been caring for until the end. After her death, she travels from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota after receiving an invitation to her cousin’s wedding. Tana’s inability to celebrate so soon after a loss while still in grief is worsened by the fact that she hasn’t gone back home in a long time. With that on her mind as she drives her grandmother’s Cadillac, we spend practically the whole film with her from the minute she wakes up before the city has only just begun to come alive through her discovering a lyrical personal meaning to her travels.
Except when we hear brief interviews with folks she encounters. Whether at a cafe or a hotel, the film slows down to reflect on characters who would otherwise be relegated to the background. Though every location and person offers a beauty to which Maltz is sensitive, Gladstone emerges as a driving force unlike any other. She adds grace to every frame, delicately constructing an experience that is as timeless as it is spectacular.
In its observational style, it frequently resembles the work of the brilliant American director Kelly Reichardt, with whom Gladstone collaborated on the magnificent 2016 film Certain Women. At the same time, it taps into a particular frequency, resulting in a really one-of-a-kind creation.
All of this adds up to a picture that serves as yet another showcase for Gladstone. It’s not that the environment around her isn’t beautiful, with everything from the neon-lit world at night to the brilliance of dawn at the end taking on a very stunning aspect, but she transforms it into something so much more in every instant. Thousands of words might be written about Gladstone’s presence and the way she explores her characters, yet this would still fall short of capturing how she just controls a situation.
She is one of the greatest working performers today for a reason, whether it was in the aforementioned Fancy Dance or a small appearance in the excellent series Reservation Dogs. Midway through, she had a talk with actor Richard Ray Whitman, who previously appeared in Reservation Dogs and the 2016 movie Neither Wolf Nor Dog. For a brief minute, the intensity that bursts through the quiet when they first reunite makes you forget you’re watching two actors.
Instead, it appears to be two people who have gotten overwhelmed by the resonance of the moment and communicate as much via their eyes as they do through their words. It is only one powerful moment among several that Maltz is appropriate to let linger now and then before leaving it behind as we carry on with Tana.
As she walks, we can hear the overlapping chatter of the radio, which serves as a constant reminder of the harsh reality of life in America today. It isn’t preachy, even as it emphasizes that there is plenty to be aware of in the present and that there is frequently nothing that can be done to alter it. This is then reinforced by Lana’s experiences with those who may wish her harm.
It is frequently legitimately disturbing, such as when she is followed from a petrol station or by inebriated guys at an otherwise joyous occasion since it sharply conveys how even the most mundane environment can become menacing. It guarantees that we are not presented with an overly rosy view of the nation, which may gloss over its ugliness in pursuit of the tremendous beauty of its surroundings. What makes the picture so successful is the way Maltz weaves everything together.
The rich textures of the terrain and the people become linked, producing a tale that pays special attention to what other filmmakers may ignore. It accomplishes it with a gentle touch, never delving too far into the darkness, while still recognizing that it is always present. The film settles into a rhythm that proves to be rather captivating when Lana comes into a photo that drives her to go in quest of where it was shot.
She still meets new people, including a brief cameo from a lovely Raymond Lee, but the film gradually removes all the extraneous noise for something shockingly devastating in its last scenes. It draws you in even more when accompanied by a fantastic tune by Neil Halstead and the quartet DYAN.
Building to a finale that is both surprising and entirely appropriate, the film looks out to the enormous horizon as well as the internal past that its wandering woman carries with her. It’s the kind of ending that could become clichéd in a less nuanced work that telegraphed its approach, but this one survives because of the careful manner it went about eliciting crucial disclosures. Gladstone does not provide a major statement or declaration to explain what it all means, instead allowing her powerful performance to speak for itself.
As the cutting speed increases, it’s as if we’re breathing quicker and faster in anticipation of a tremendous exhale as we take it all in. Even when it feels a little rough around the edges, the portrait being created is stunning and uncontrolled. All of this comes together to guarantee that, in the long cinematic tradition of American road films, The Unknown Country leaves a lasting legacy of its own, right up to the final sequence of shattering images.