' ' Cinema Romantico: Montana Story

Monday, October 10, 2022

Montana Story

There is a moment midway through “Montana Story” when half-siblings Cal (Owen Teague) and Erin (Haley Lu Richardson) are transporting a newly bought horse trailer back to their father’s ranch. The trailer breaks down, though, and they phone a friend. As they wait, Cal crosses the empty road where the camera switches to a point-of-view shot as he looks across the vast wide-open sky from right to left. Not long after, Erin suggests they check out a nearby mine their father helped build and so they do. That strip mine is just an ugly empty hole dug deep into the ground, its ugliness juxtaposed against those same big skies we have just seen Cal appreciate, quietly signaling the blight on the Big Sky country their own father helped create. It’s a powerful moment lessened at least a little by Erin explicating the myth of Big Sky country in a few lines of dialogue just moments before, evocative of directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s frustrating tendency to undercut their own visual power, resulting in a half-good movie that works like gangbusters when dialing it down and less so when laying it on thick. 

Both children have returned home because their father has suffered a stroke, leaving him in a coma and cared for by an in-home nurse, Ace (Gilbert Owuor). Cal and Erin might be estranged from their dad, but they prove even more estranged from one another, illustrated by how they are first seen together in frames placing them far apart, suggesting the emotional distance they will have to travel to make amends. Rather than gradually and visually fill in that backstory, however, McGehee and Siegel plunk down in front of us all at once in a melodramatic monologue Cal delivers to Ace laying out in specific detail just what happened. It’s brutal, just brutal, stopping the movie dead in its tracks while simultaneously exposing how “Montana Story” never really cares to know Ace at all, just on hand as a kind of receptor for exposition and occasional dispenser of wisdom. (To his immense credit, Owuor does good reacting work during this monologue, never quite letting you know precisely what he thinks of what Cal admits, a welcome sense of mystery that fits in with the best parts of the rest of the film.) The conclusion, meanwhile, is fueled by nothing less than a thunderous god of machine truer to the kind of mythical western trappings “Montana Story” is otherwise trying to eschew.

Yet despite such overcooked contrivance to help spur the denouement, the resolution of the central conflict between brother and sister remains refreshingly prickly, like a wound sutured rather than fully healed. This is especially evoked in the standoffish performance of Richardson. Her character keeps Cal in the dark about where she has been and what she has been doing, and when she finally reveals it, Richardson plays it almost curt, like Erin is giving just this much rope and no more, underlining how the true meaning of “Montana Story” exists in the spaces in-between the words these two speak to one another. The movie’s best scene takes place on the porch where Cal and Erin’s conversation is overshadowed by the wind whipping on the soundtrack, as if it’s carrying all their halting words away into some invisible void. 

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