To deem Morrisa Maltz a spiritual disciple of revered master Terrence Malick may seem too facile a reference. Still, the evident links are all there: she’s from Texas and made a movie that traverses the Badlands of South Dakota for her heroine to get back to “The Lone Star State.” But while the stirring visual fluidity of “The Unknown Country,” her first fiction feature and a kindhearted triumph, provides further arguments pointing to Malick likely being an influence, what distinguishes Maltz’s approximation to that style of evocatively loose filmmaking is that it’s grounded on the personal victories of real individuals. Based on that, she forges eclectic narrative devices for a tone poem with substantial dramatic meat on its bones.
As it’s requisite for a road movie to start, “The Unknown Country” opens with a departure. Tana (Lily Gladstone), a seemingly reserved Native American woman, leaves Minnesota for a cross-country trip in her well-loved vehicle. No details of what she is running from or toward are provided at this point. Dwarfed by the immensity of snowy landscapes in aerial wide shots, her car pushes on through empty roads enshrouded in contemplative stillness.
But unlike countless other stories that take a character on the open road, here there are no major lessons to be learned or obstacles to overcome, just a map populated with instances of intimacy that are so delicately mundane, they could easily slip through the cracks of one’s modern everyday bustle. Yet, in the hands of this director and through the eyes of her actress, these human exchanges imbue a subtle sense of lyricism into the habitual.
Maltz sets Gladstone in mostly real, vaguely fictionalized scenarios in different small towns as if to concoct an ode to the human marvels of flyover country. Gladstone’s timid warmth fits right into the subdued texture of the piece. Along the way, the director, who previously worked in documentary, folds in nonfiction portraits of certain people Tana encounters, the oft-unseen, magicians of quotidian life that enhance the world with their unabashed kindness.
One of these mini profiles on extraordinary people in ordinary places honors a woman who runs a diner, and for whom going above and beyond to ensure people leave with a fond memory in addition to their meal has become her life’s mission. Another spotlights a convenience store attendant who found love unexpectedly and now extends some of that joy to everyone who comes in. Lastly there’s Flo, an elderly woman with passion for dancing.
The key stop on Tana’s multi-state journey entails spending time with her relatives at a wedding and replenishing within herself a sense of community, one clearly missing from whatever her existence looked just days prior. Mention of Tana’s grandmother, a chief figure in the young woman’s upbringing, and a suitcase left behind at the reservation before she herself headed out west, let us into the loss that overwhelms her.
With a face that beams a comforting inner light, Gladstone is a treasure. She exudes the kind of compassionate curiosity for others reserved for those who always listens attentively and empathize with your pain even if she can’t offer any advice. Not surprisingly, director Kelly Reichardt has collaborated with her in stories that revisit the Western mythos with a unique gentleness. In “The Unknown Country,” Gladstone takes on a lead role with equal measures of vulnerability and playfulness, adding up to an endlessly captivating and tenderly potent performance.
For as much as one could just watch Gladstone roam though the American heartland in any project, this one’s special in its form as well. More than simply observing striking vistas — which, of course, abound — cinematographer Andrew Hajek harnesses natural light to craft a mix of shots that appear inconspicuously stolen from private events and those of conceived with more noticeable composition. Their intermingling produces an ethereal cinematic terrain for us to gaze into.
In a showcase of synchronicity between Hajek and editor Vanara Taing, one delightful transition positions Tana’s car right inside the “O” in a Motel’s neon sign. Taing strings “The Unknown County” masterfully to give us the sensation of something spontaneously beautiful but with a precise cadence that in turn congeals emotionally with the soundscape.
A cacophony of voices from the most abhorrently bigoted conservative pundits to those denouncing the last presidency fill the airwaves as Tana drives to Texas. But instead of a blunt denouncement, Maltz advocates for glimpses of optimism mile after mile, at every bar, with every cigarette shared, an in the small talk that evolves into a heart-to-heart chat.
That’s not to say she operates from naivete, there are doses of danger in the form of men that make Tana uncomfortable, but in the final balance, a strong belief in the benevolence of strangers wins. Within this collection of filmic notes that comprise the visual and sonic symphony of “The Unknown Country,” Maltz use of sporadically deployed musical interludes
to tracks like “Sun June’s “Young” or Beach House’s “Take Care” enrich this trip of self-discovery, even if some are more touchingly effective than others.
With a philosophical foundation that derives from honest interest in the subjects portrayed, “The Unknown Country” feels more humanistic than the majority of Malick’s recent relases and perhaps more honest than “Nomadland,” simply because Gladstone doesn’t connote the same Hollywood recognition as Frances McDormand. Both Maltz and Zhao’s Oscar winner are indeed akin in their searches, but for its slightly more abstract vision and focus on Native American culture, “The Unknown Country” is closer to Zhao’s first feature “Songs My Brothers Taught Me.” Like that film announced Zhao’s voice as one to treasure, this one puts us in the presence of a major talent, bearing something profound in her artistic inclinations.
Though more details eventually come to the surface about her past, Tana’s story remains fittingly elusive for a film that avoids heavy-handed sentimentality and makes no promises of future relationships (Raymond Lee appears as a potential romantic partner) or anything more than instants of connection wonderful in their impermanence. Maltz doesn’t deny that our lives are like a secret vanish in the wind, only maintained in this plane via the voices and thoughts of those we impacted, for better or worse, but she reminds us of their intrinsic value.
“The Unknown Country” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
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