‘Montana Story’ Review: A Domestic Drama in Big Sky Country

Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s new film follows two adult siblings as they grapple with their terminally ill father.

In the deft genre rethink “Montana Story,” the American flag doesn’t just flutter and wave, it also sends a warning. It looks so unassuming. Clean and neat, without frayed edges or faded colors, it flies from a tall pole planted in front of a handsome two-story home. There, on 200 acres in southwestern Montana, in a glorious area girdled by mountains known as Paradise Valley, nature beckons and soothes. It looks like heaven; it takes a while to see the rot.

The directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel don’t linger on the flag. Instead, they gently nose you into a classic western milieu while simultaneously pulling you into a simmering family melodrama about two adult children grappling with each other and their terminally ill father. He’s the one who bought the family ranch years earlier and — with plenty of help, pretty horses and unethically lined pockets — took up the quintessential American role of the cowboy. That archetype is critical to both his legacy and the movie’s larger ambitions, which draw a line between one man’s patrimony and the country’s fraught bequest.

It’s nearing winter when the youngest, Cal (Owen Teague), rolls up to the ranch in his truck. Lanky and in his early 20s, he has the loose limbs of a man who hasn’t settled into his body and a name that evokes “East of Eden,” another domestic drama. Here, the family’s history emerges with discretion, with visual cues and tense talks involving red-alert words like bankruptcy. Cal’s father, Wade (Rob Story), has had a stroke. Comatose and hooked to a machine that keeps his heart pumping, he now languishes in the study, cared for by a nurse, Ace (Gilbert Owuor), and a housekeeper, Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero).

Despite the bad news and Cal’s furrowed brow over the unpaid bills, there is an inviting, relaxed quality to this narrative table setting, to the introductions, the carefully arranged genre elements and the casual way the parts begin sliding into place. Part of what’s appealing, even lulling, is that you think you’ve seen this before, if not necessarily in person. With its vistas, small town, lonely ranch and dusty roads, the Montana here looks pretty much like what you’d expect. It’s beautiful, isolated, rugged; it’s also a world that in image and in ethos was partly invented by Hollywood (and currently available to rent through Airbnb).

Everything changes with the arrival of Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), Cal’s estranged older sister. She enters like a storm, disrupting the calm; as Cal later jokes, if you don’t like the weather in Montana, just wait five minutes. With brusque, hurried impatience, Erin explains she has flown in from the East Coast to see their father, whom she hasn’t seen since she left seven years ago. She plans to leave again right after. Instead, she stays, and that decision by this angry, wounded, defensive woman — Richardson tightly coils the character’s body inward, as if in hiding — sets a brutal reckoning in motion and this story on its course.

What emerges next is by turns hot and cold, elliptical and obvious, effective and sometimes less so. As filmmakers, McGehee and Siegel like to engage with traditional genres, though at a discreet, distinctly self-aware remove. (Their movies include “The Deep End” and “What Maisie Knew.”) This creates a kind of doubled vision (theirs, yours), which isn’t a novel strategy, certainly, but can be tough to pull off. When “Montana Story” works, you are effortlessly drawn into a world — which allows you to go with the easygoing, realist groove — even as you’re taking stock of the artifice and waiting for the hammer to fall.

While Cal frets and cautiously approaches Erin, attempting to reconnect, she pushes back, her face by turns opaque and knotted in rage. They keep circling, and the story progresses — there’s a beloved old horse in the barn and an interested party surveying the property — allowing each sibling to emerge with clarity and reveal the family’s relationships and pathologies. Even in dying, Wade remains as much a powerful gravitational force as the canned ideal he once embodied. As the story ticks on, the filmmakers put Cal and Erin’s unhappiness into play with ideas about identity, power, patriarchy and the myth of the west.

There’s much to like in “Montana Story,” including Teague and Richardson, who, whether together or alone, retain an emotional integrity. Richardson has the better role, even if her character has to butcher a sacrificial chicken. Teague is burdened with some confessional speeches that, in length and density, feel at odds with the otherwise naturalistic dialogue. More provocative than persuasive, these near-soliloquies add buckets of information, but you can hear the writing in every phrase and weighted pause. And, unlike the fade-outs that punctuate the movie like chapter breaks, they unproductively disrupt the flow.

In the main, Cal’s speeches seem contrived to push the story into another storytelling register, away from grounded psychological realism and into something approaching the mythic. It doesn’t always work. There are too many explanations and awkward good intentions; Dante’s “Inferno” puts in a dubious appearance, and the supporting characters, almost all played by people of color, skew homogeneously nice. Even so, when Erin rides the family’s old horse under the sheltering sky, and Cal, in plaintive voice-over, speaks about what they once had and what they lost, “Montana Story” opens a world of meaning that can pierce the heart.

Montana Story
Rated R for violence. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. In theaters.

Source: Movies -


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