Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Bleecker Street releases the film in theaters on Friday, May 13.
Cal (Owen Teague) arrives on a large Montana spread, his long face and hesitant gait foretelling what his father’s large wooden, picturesque home holds. When he enters, an overbearing beeping sound arises, and a kind-spoken Kenyan nurse named Ace (Gilbert Owuor) greets him. Cal’s father had a stroke. He’s now lying in the living room in a permanent coma attached to life support. The ranch isn’t in much better shape: A lapsed mortgage, no cattle, a 25-year-old stallion on its last legs, and a few chickens account for what remains.
Cal tries to shoulder the burden alone until his estranged sister Erin (a profound Haley Lu Richardson) makes an unannounced appearance. The pair haven’t spoken for seven years. Back then, Erin outed their father in the school paper as a lawyer covering up a toxic mess at a local mine. Their father attacked her, beating her nearly to death, only for a 15-year-old Cal to stand frozen, watching. Now she lives in upstate New York and Cal lives in Cheyenne. But their shared regret stands only inches apart.
Both Teague and Richardson are perfectly cast in this sibling drama. Both have the kind of rough and tumble exteriors you’d expect from a person living in the present-day American West. While not a prototypical Western, there are no gunfights or lawmen, this neo-Western covers the new (but familiar) confrontations happening among the mountains and the brush: Indigenous land stripped of resources and white men as a destructive, toxic influence. Amid the big sky, and wide landscapes captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens is a modest, tempestuous narrative. Co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s “Montana Story” is a patient, captivating portrait of the past that stays with us long after the wind stops blowing.
Beyond their abusive father, the siblings share another foible: Their horse Mr. T, the black stallion with arthritis. Cal wants to put him down rather than keeping him locked away and paying for the feed. Erin would rather take the horse with her back to upstate New York. The equine’s situation, needless to say, is a reversal of their father’s. It’s a metaphor operating with a heavy hand.
Other components aren’t wholly developed either. The film makes note of Ace’s Kenyan background, how he stays in touch with his mom, but his character is kind of a throwaway. How did a congenial Kenyan nurse end up in Montana? What kind of culture shock is he going through? Ace isn’t the story the filmmakers want to tell. But his inclusion isn’t made wholly necessary. McGehee and Siegel also make allusions to the indigenous population and America’s still mistreatment of their land. The car radio shares a story about the Dakota Access pipeline, for instance.
Characters like Cal’s best friend Joey (Asivak Koostachin), their family friend Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero), and Mukki (Eugene Brave Rock) fill out the indigenous parts. And yet we never hear their thoughts about Cal’s dad. Symbolism lurks within an old white man of the West who helped cover up contaminated native land now lying in bed waiting to die. Why did Joey or Valentina still associate with Cal’s father? What did they think about the older man’s actions? It’s a glaring hole in such a deliberate drama.
Thankfully, the fraught relationship between Cal and Erin more than fuels “Montana Story.” Both Richardson and Teague play their characters as though they’re stuck in a time capsule. Every day, Erin lives in the night her father attacked her. She often struggles to make eye contact and crumbles into a frantic pile of anxiety whenever left alone with her comatose father. Cal, on the other hand, is suspended in the state of a scared 15-year old. He folds in his body while talking to Erin, and tips his head, unsure of how to approach his embittered sister.
“Montana Story” operates best as a ticking time bomb juxtaposed tonally from Kevin Morby’s plaintive melodic score. The siblings often veer close to laying out their true grievances, and the closer they arrive, the sharper the jagged, rugged landscape becomes, and the colder the skin-smearing wind sounds. Their ping-pong game of nasty words — at one point Erin alludes to Cal belonging in the lowest circle of Dante’s Hell, where the betrayers of special relationships reside — comes to a head during a bitter lightning storm that causes a power outage in the home. Richardson’s spontaneous overflow of emotions is a gut punch, while Teague’s slow emotional build to fall in a landfill of grief is acutely measured.
McGehee and Siegel’s reach toward social commentary is short, but their understanding of how children react toward abusive parents, how those wounds can fester long after the bruises depart, hits close to the heart. “Montana Story” doesn’t reinvent the Western wheel. Rather it offers tender mercies as a sentimental work that explodes in well-earned fury.
“Montana Story” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.