“Montana Story” (2022) – Montana is 147,000 square miles, 255 miles long, and 630 miles wide.
That’s a long way across the state. One could drive from Boston to New York City, turn around and chauffeur back to Beantown, and then make a U-turn (yes, again) and head back to and reach The Big Apple, and that’s how big Montana is.
It’s the nation’s fourth-largest state, with just over 1,000,000 residents. According to Google, 1,062,000 individuals, or 7.2 people for every square mile.
The Treasure State, the country’s 41st, is a vast, massive place, and with the starkest of contrasts, writers/directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel – along with writer Mike Spreter – wrote and drew up their movie about a small nuclear family’s crisis in Montana.
McGehee, Siegel, and Spreter may have included the clan’s last name during the film’s 113-minute runtime, possibly in passing, but this critic didn’t recall it or write it down. However, surnames aren’t important here. This tale about a family’s disintegration – and as a byproduct, an unofficial code of silence between its principal members – is, unfortunately, not a rare circumstance these days.
The domestic disfunction in this household isn’t uniquely American, but “Montana Story” – through the rugged-terrain captures, a sparse population, and the film’s measured pace – feels like a modern-day western, an isolated quarrel on a prairie but without whiskey shots in a saloon and gunfights on a dusty Main Street.
It’s present-day, and 20-somethings Cal (Owen Teague) and Erin (Haley Lu Richardson) – brother and sister – are compelled to return to their childhood home because their father is in a coma, and the prognosis isn’t favorable. Due to their pop’s condition, it’s clear that conversations will be one-sided, but the reason for Erin’s estrangement with her dad and Cal is a mystery.
Something caused Erin’s distress, and the film barely gives any clues during the first act. Meanwhile, Richardson’s raw performance of a young woman unwilling or unable to shake the agony of her past pulls us into the story with equal parts of empathy and morbid curiosity.
We’ll eventually get to Erin’s truth.
Cal knows it because he lived under the same roof, so we saddle up to join their unplanned, fragmented reunion in Big Sky Country along with the family’s stressful economic realities.
If you enjoyed Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider” (2017) or Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” (2016) -which featured the American West as a majestic and timeless character while the human counterparts struggle with 21st-century society – then “Montana Story” is your film as well. Like the aforementioned dramas, a horse plays a part in this picture too. This stallion’s name – of a famous 1980s television star – helps deepen our connection to this beautiful animal. Still, if this pony’s name were simply “Horsey”, our heart would go out to him and Erin’s attempt to address his immediate needs, which becomes her primary focus.
Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero), a family friend who also works on the ranch, says, “(Erin) doesn’t know how to make the pain go away. This, she can do.” Well, when a family’s pieces don’t fit nicely into a Norman Rockwell painting, and the picture might resemble the complete opposite, one may set all kin-connections aside and walk away…whether in Montana, Delaware, or Timbuktu.
That is Erin’s history, but she reaches for a small fragment, maybe two, to embrace in the here and now.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Directed by: Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Written by: Scott McGehee, David Siegel, and Mike Spreter
Starring: Haley Lu Richardson, Owen Teague, Gilbert Owuor, Kimberly Guerrero, Eugene Brave Rock, and Asivak Koostachin
Runtime: 113 minutes
Image credits: Bleecker Street