Like its title, the opening shot of Montana Story tells us exactly where we are, as the morning sun peeks over the craggy mountaintops of Big Sky Country. But the sweeping landscapes here — captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens with a casual embrace of their beauty that never falls into the postcard trap of majestic awe — serve a different purpose. The idea that all the panoramic splendor equates to a sense of peace and belonging is called into question by damaged characters fumbling for perspective in Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s affecting drama, its tight ensemble led by performances of heart-searing sensitivity from Haley Lu Richardson and Owen Teague.
Since their head-turning 1993 debut with Suture, McGehee and Siegel have been making smart, distinctive movies about knotty family ties, notably the neo-noir The Deep End and an underappreciated contemporary Henry James adaptation, What Maisie Knew.
The Bottom Line
Intimate pain on an epic canvas.
They remain in that thematic territory with this project hatched quickly at the height of COVID lockdown, which reflects the anxieties and sorrows of the period in unique ways, while not actually dealing with the pandemic. Only the sly inclusion of face masks, worn to protect a patient on life support, serves as a reminder of the collective trauma during which Montana Story was conceived and filmed. But that doesn’t make the soulful drama downbeat. This is a minor-key modern Western whose melancholy probe into the bruising past gives way, in a quietly satisfying conclusion, to the hope of reconciliation, even healing.
Lanky, soft-spoken Cal (Teague) is first to arrive at the Montana ranch where he grew up. His choice to go to the stables and get reacquainted with the family’s beloved 25-year-old stallion, Mr. T., before seeing his dying father, Wade (Rob Story), is the first indication that the old man will not be mourned. Cal’s father has been in a coma since a major stroke, in the professional care of Ace (Gilbert Owuor), a nurse from Kenya, with longtime housekeeper Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero) coming in three days a week.
Wade has left the ranch mired in debt, borrowing against the property until bankruptcy had to be declared. Cal is told that the sale won’t even cover the medical bills. As he begins the process of selling off assets, his older sister Erin (Richardson) arrives unannounced, seven years after disappearing from their lives without a trace. She’s bristling with tension and clearly conflicted about the impulse that brought her back to see her father one last time. She shows no warmth toward Cal, who is hurt to learn that Valentina has remained in contact with his sister the entire time, long after he gave up trying to find her.
Richardson is terrific at signaling the combustible anger in Erin as she flinches whenever she’s anywhere near their unconscious father. Despite her initial plan to head back immediately to upstate New York where she’s been living, a difference of opinion with Cal over what to do with Mr. T. makes her stick around. The awkwardness between the once-close siblings is thick in the air when Cal fills her in on the developments in his life since they were last together and Erin responds with stony silence, as if she’s not even hearing him.
The reason for her coldness toward both her brother and their abusive father is revealed in a moving scene in which Ace’s kind, gentle manner prompts Cal to open up spontaneously. His guilt is clouded by the fact that he was just a scared 15-year-old at the time he witnessed the violent incident that caused Erin to run away. In many ways, he’s still that haunted kid, beating himself up over not having taken steps to protect her, eternally interrogating himself over what he should have done.
Ace and Valentina remain outside the bitter family history, but their observations — usually just a glance or the occasional word or two — add texture to the drama and their presence alone makes them silent mediators. A controversial mining project that Cal and Erin’s father helped shield from government oversight interweaves the violation of the land into the story, while stoical Valentina, her easygoing son Joey (Asivak Koostachin) and another character named Mukki (Eugene Brave Rock) represent the indigenous inhabitants of the area, displaced first by white settlers and then by industry.
There’s a lovely economy in a scene between Erin and Joey that seems to hint at a past flirtation, possibly even a romance between them. She remains distant and wary of accepting his offers of help, but his cheerful openness toward her never wavers.
The strained dynamic between Erin and Cal is beautifully observed in a scene where they visit the site of the mine. She likens the enormous multi-tiered canyon to the Circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno, revealing that the final circle was reserved for “betrayers of special relationships … community, kin.” The accusation is stated bluntly, and yet in Richardson’s layered characterization — wounded, hostile, but fragile and torn over the loss from her life of the brother she once loved — there’s a suggestion of longing buried deep beneath the surface.
But the confrontation that’s been simmering between the siblings nonetheless has to happen, exploding on the night of a thunderstorm that causes a power outage and sparks panic around Wade’s life-support equipment. The eruption of pent-up emotion from Richardson is a jagged burst of pain and suffering that shows how Erin has lived the awful experience over and over, eliciting an agonized response of lacerating regret from Teague. Both actors are superb at conveying the profound scars left on children by abusive parents, festering long into adulthood.
The story unfolds at a measured pace, alert to every unspoken feeling of the mostly taciturn characters, with Kevin Morby’s folky score and a handful of songs delicately coloring the mood.
Nuttgens, who delivered the atmospheric visuals of another fine neo-Western, Hell or High Water, shoots the expansive Paradise Valley locations in 35mm, bringing a resonant sense of place to the wide-open spaces. McGehee and Siegel’s ability to fill those vast distances with intimate drama that never loosens its hold yields a film whose visual artistry is matched by its depth of feeling. If the choice to end on the outcome of Mr. T. seems a slightly prosaic, sentimental metaphor, the magnificent closing images erase those concerns.