“The film begins on very strong and compelling notes, but after a point, it becomes staid, reiterating the same core ideas without much to take it further.”
by Ken Bakely
Don McGehee and David Siegel establish a gloomy sense of place and feeling in Montana Story immediately, and for whatever else happens – from what it accomplishes, to where it falls short – it holds on to all of that with clarity. It’s more than a question of Giles Nuttgens’ robust cinematography, cast against the outstretched plains of its titular setting. But contextualizing the images, McGehee and Siegel go a long way in explaining what these places mean to their characters, and in that context, there is a deep isolation, with the ghosts of a grim past that linger in the still air. Their script follows Cal (Owen Teague), and Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), two young adults who are half-siblings. They have been called back to their father’s ranch, after he suffered a stroke which left him comatose. His death is imminent, and he is under the care of hospice nurse Ace (Gilbert Uwuor) while longtime ranch employee Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero) looks after the property.
Cal and Erin have not been home for a long time. He’s driven up from Wyoming, where he moved for college, and she’s flown in from upstate New York. They have also not spoken to each other in nearly a decade, split apart by the pain inflicted upon them by their father, who was a deeply corrupt lawyer in public and a physically abusive man in private. Cal is back to settle his father’s finances, which have now become destitute; Erin’s return is more tentative and sudden, after she left the family for good seven years ago, following a harrowing series of events which drove her from the house, and whose circumstances destroyed the siblings’ relationship. Deeply estranged and struggling to process their emotions towards each other and their shared parent, they must navigate the pain of their individual and collective history, stuck within the tentative and uncertain challenges they’re confronted with in their current moment.
Montana Story understands that the past and present can’t be divorced, as much as we might wish it could; we carry the heavy burdens of our history through everything we do. These things don’t need to be directly explained – in fact, these are the complicated feelings that live in the silences between words, and they handle this with a particular grace in their drawing of Cal and Erin, who are brought to life by Owen Teague and Haley Lu Richardson’s finely tuned performances. This is where the movie thrives, and feels the most searching – closely and quietly examining the fractured family at the core of this story. They navigate this fraught reunion and everything else they’ll encounter as they return to a place which carries such a loaded history. There is, by design, not much to push the story forward, because the story itself isn’t really the point. Thus, it’s not merely disheartening but mystifying when it seems to lose faith in our ability to understand these observations for our own, and the movie starts spinning its wheels. The film begins on very strong and compelling notes, but after a point, it becomes staid, reiterating the same core ideas without much to take it further.
From there, Montana Story begins to assume the particular problems that one might associate with a misguided play. There are scenes which devolve into blocky monologues, pouring out exposition in key moments when it has previously done such good work in setting things up with a deft subtlety. In addition, its consciously intimate bearings are poorly equipped to handle a sudden rash of climatic events (which literally begin during a dark and stormy night) that, in the end, don’t really expand or enrich the film’s exploration of its characters or underlying themes beyond where it was already heading. The kinds of early motifs that radiate soft power – such as an argument between Erin and Cal on what to do about an aging, frail horse on the ranch – speak to a trust that McGehee and Siegel have in their material and viewers to understand these people and what they’re feeling, but that trust seems to dwindle. This is a movie with a lot on its mind, reflecting on reconciliation, trauma, the evolution of our perspectives on places and ideas over time, and what grief means when it’s not for a person but for what that person leaves you with – or rather, has imposed upon you. McGehee and Siegel have clearly thought deeply about all of this. But by the end, Montana Story doesn’t take us as far as its tidy conclusion clearly assumes that it has. There’s a lot of very good work in setting up these characters and what’s going on inside their minds, but when it actually comes down to it, the film doesn’t connect the pieces as comprehensively or as neatly as it wishes to.
Watch: Prime Video / DVD