REVIEW: Montana Story [2022]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 113 minutes
    Release Date: May 13th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: Bleecker Street Media
    Director(s): Scott McGehee & David Siegel
    Writer(s): Scott McGehee & David Siegel / Scott McGehee, David Siegel & Mike Spreter (story)

There’s nothing left now. For anybody.

Estranged family members returning home after a long absence to see the death of a parent through is hardly a unique premise, but it doesn’t have to be if the psychological and emotional toll expended from the reunion remains honest and authentic. Scott McGehee and David Siegel achieve exactly that with Montana Story, a script born from the necessity of another production’s COVID-driven postponement leading them to scale back and create under the industry’s newfound restrictions that didn’t allow for sprawling casts or excessive fireworks. They instead center everything on two twenty-something siblings who haven’t spoken in seven years and the drama that ensues from their unplanned and unexpected rendezvous. Everything they’ve wanted to say and/or hear is now afforded its chance—if they’re willing to take it.

Don’t be so sure they are or assume that what is finally said will be what the other wants to hear. The event that tore them apart isn’t a small thing. It’s earth-shattering both in its violent underpinnings and its betrayal. I won’t ruin what occurred, just know that its catalyst was the man they’ve come to see out of obligation (Owen Teague‘s Cal has stayed in touch despite living a state away) and confirmation (Haley Lu Richardson‘s Erin hopes to find whatever closure she can and hop back onto a plane without ever seeing Big Sky country again). Their father is laid out in the study on life support, his coma one that he won’t wake from. Maybe that’s better, though. Maybe it’s better he doesn’t reply.

A nurse (Gilbert Owuor‘s Ace) ensures he’s comfortable and an old friend (Kimberly Guerrero‘s Valentina) maintains some semblance of normalcy, but family must make the arrangements. That’s why Cal’s here: hire a real estate agent about selling the ranch, deal with the remaining livestock, and get everything else in order. Erin arriving at all is a surprise because nobody had spoken with her since she ran away. To see them catch each other across a field reveals all we need to know about why, the details coming soon after as Cal attempts to cleanse a soul that’s been aching ever since. He wants to talk but is unsure where to begin. She wants to escape but knows seeing their father one last time is necessary for moving on.

There’s a lot more happening beneath the surface too beyond this potential reconciliation. They live in Montana and have a relationship with the Native American community whether it be emotional (Valentina and Asivak Koostachin as her son Joey), transactional (buying a truck from Eugene Brave Rock‘s Mukki), or destructive (news stories about conflicts and tidbits about Cal and Erin’s father being a shady lawyer who helped facilitate said destruction). Poverty plays a role with bank foreclosures and debt forcing a sale to whomever is willing to pay the most rather than someone who knows and cherishes the land itself. This return is therefore as much about confronting the past with Dad as it is with this place. It’s a goodbye to their demons and joy alike.

The writing must be impeccable as a result because we need to believe both that Cal and Erin haven’t spoken and that she’d ever come back. To make that all make sense without feeling contrived is one of the film’s best features because it allows us to trust McGehee and Siegel in a way that allows Richardson and Teague’s performances to shine above plot. Everything that occurs comes with baggage from Cal daring to touch their father in a way that might bring him comfort (Ace teaching him how to massage his leg muscles) to Erin’s need to save the family’s twenty-five-year-old horse from being euthanized due to no one being able to care for him. It’s all connected to that fateful day: possessions, love, hate, and guilt.

Who will speak first, though? The one who deserves an apology or the one who owes it? It’s a complex dynamic considering Erin left without providing Cal the means to reach out and explain himself, but that doesn’t excuse anything. Neither does his fear of the consequences or naivete to think they can start over without mentioning it. We receive some small breakthroughs—moments where the rapport returns, but only for an instant before the steely cold pushes back in. And the longer things go without acknowledging the elephant in the room, the more distant their relationship becomes. Not even the thousands of miles that separated them for close to a decade can compare to the silence shared in the same room. Not that talking guarantees anything concrete.

Credit the filmmakers for crafting their script in a way that doesn’t talk down to the audience. There’s a very important power outage towards the end of the film that comes out of nowhere narratively. Because this is Montana, however, and a lack of cell reception has already put it in our minds that technology is lacking, it avoids becoming a contrivance. The impulse is to set the outage up with another earlier on, but that would ultimately provide too concrete of a one-to-one corollary. By letting it arise naturally from context clues alone instead, the moment can be pushed to the background so the characters’ responses can take control. So, rather than prove a culmination of the filmed events, it serves as a culmination of their lives.

It’s an intense scene less because of the tension born from a man hooked to machines losing the means to continue breathing and more because of the ramifications of what saving that man means to the people present and able to do so. While I wouldn’t call Montana Story a slow film—I was way too invested from frame one to ever feel bored—it’s not in a rush to get where it wants to go. McGehee and Siegel expertly pace the inevitably explosive confrontation between Cal and Erin with resonant and relatable instances of deflection and frustration. What happens in that power outage, though, dismantles their desire to hide behind the emotional and physical distance that had marred their former inseparability. It all comes out now.

The climax lives up to the expectations. Teague and Richardson had spent almost ninety minutes internalizing their reactions to not give the other an inch and suddenly the filter is removed. There’s something to be said about his quieter performance and the subtle nuance that comes from believing he has no control over the situation (a belief that reveals just how much he squandered by thinking the same back then), but she steals every single scene regardless. Richardson is simply working on a whole other level to give Erin’s mixture of rage and sorrow a voice even when she refuses to speak. She made up her mind and never looked back until the moment came where she could. The question becomes whether Cal finally steps up.

[1] Haley Lu Richardson (right) and Owen Teague (left) in MONTANA STORY Credit: Bleecker Street
[2] Eugene Brave Rock (left), Owen Teague (middle), and Haley Lu Richardson (right) in MONTANA STORY Credit: Bleecker Street
[3] Kimberley Guerrero (left) and Gilbert Owuor (right) in MONTANA STORY Credit: Bleecker Street

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