Review: The land is beautiful, the family drama compelling in superb 'Montana Story'

James Verniere, Boston Herald on

Published in Entertainment News

A fraternal relation to Jane Campion’s overrated “The Power of the Dog,” indie effort “Montana Story” is the modern-day tale of an extended family, including an estranged brother and sister, preparing for the impending death of the family patriarch.

Cal (Owen Teague) is the first to arrive at the sprawling ranch home where he grew up. He finds family friend Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero) there. Also at the house is Cal’s father, who is in a coma in a hospital bed in the study, where he is cared for by soft-spoken nurse Ace (Gilbert Owuor), who has family back in Nairobi. Cal’s sister Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), who was not expected, arrives suddenly. A small, angry ghost, she is traumatized by her return.

Seven years earlier, when Cal was 15, Erin had written a paper for school exposing her father as a “slimy lawyer,” and a newspaper got wind of it, and her father almost killed her. She expected her brother to protect her. But he was too afraid of his father. Erin observes that her father is now “shrunken and pathetic” and has never forgiven Cal. She is in fact more concerned about the imminent death by euthanasia of Cal’s neglected 25-year-old black horse.

Cal’s old friend Joey (Asivak Koostachin), Valentina’s son, arrives to chainsaw a tree that has fallen on a fence. He, Cal and Erin were a trio of best friends once, and he has missed them sorely.

Half the scenes in “Montana Story,” which was shot in Paradise Valley, Montana, are framed by a horizon-spanning vista of snow-capped mountains. Yes, the sight gives the film a mythic, neo-Western quality. But this West is different from the old one. Men don’t wear sidearms and carry Winchesters. Words and money are today’s weapons. The women can use them, too. The hostility between white residents and Native Americans has turned into friendship in some cases or numbed acceptance in others.

We learn that Cal and Erin had different mothers. Erin’s mother Libby died, leaving a hole that could not be filled by Cal’s mother Connie. Is it any wonder the name above the ranch entrance is Thorne? Both women are dead, and like all families this one has to tie up its loose ends and pay its bills. Cal, who is a civil engineer, is selling his mother’s 2013 Lexus SUV. He finds a lipstick in the glove box and gazes at it. The ranch will be sold to pay medical bills.

Co-written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel of the fine 2012 Henry James adaptation “What Maisie Knew,” “Montana Story” picks up powerful momentum as it moves along, and you are never certain where it is headed.

Erin, who knows the seven circles of Dante’s hell by heart, decides to drive the horse back to upstate New York. It is a terrible decision, and the truck and trailer she buys are ramshackle death traps. In one scene, the Native American selling the truck and trailer tells Cal and Erin that he is a Mohican from New York, whose people moved farther and farther West pushed along by the Western “expansion.” He now lives among the indigenous Blackfeet, an existential stranger in a strange land.

The cast, led by the very fine Richardson and Teague, is uniformly first-rate. The final shot will slay you. Fans of “Yellowstone” might want to give “Montana Story” a spin.




Grade: A-

MPAA rating: R (for language)

Running time: 1:53

How to watch: Now in theaters


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