In the cleverly reimagined “Montana Story” genre, the American flag doesn’t just wave and flutter, it also sends a warning. He looks so modest. Clean and neat, with no frayed edges or faded colors, it flies from a tall pole planted in front of a beautiful two-story house. There, on 200 acres in southwestern Montana, in a glorious region surrounded by mountains known as Paradise Valley, nature invites and soothes. It looks like heaven; it takes a while to see the rot.
Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel don’t dwell on the flag. Instead, they gently immerse you in a classic Western setting while simultaneously drawing you into a simmering family melodrama about two grappling adult children and their terminally ill father. He was the one who bought the family ranch years earlier and – with lots of help, nice horses and unethical lined pockets – took on the quintessential American role of cowboy. This archetype is essential to both his legacy and the film’s larger ambitions, which draw a line between one man’s heritage and the country’s heavy legacy.
Winter is approaching when the youngest, Cal (Owen Teague), arrives at the ranch in his truck. Lanky and in his early twenties, he has the loose limbs of a man who hasn’t settled into his body and a name that evokes “East of Eden,” another domestic drama. Here, the family story emerges discreetly, with visual cues and tense discussions involving red flag words like bankruptcy. Cal’s father, Wade (Rob Story), had a stroke. Comatose and addicted to a machine that makes his heart beat, he now languishes in the office, cared for by a nurse, Ace (Gilbert Owuor), and a housekeeper, Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero).
Despite the bad news and Cal’s furrowed brow over unpaid bills, there’s an inviting, relaxed quality to this narrative table setting, in the introductions, the neatly arranged genre elements, and the laid-back way the parts begin to unfold. implement. Part of what’s appealing, even soothing, is that you think you’ve seen it before, if not necessarily in person. With its vistas, small town, lonely ranch, and dusty roads, Montana here looks pretty much what you’d expect. It is beautiful, isolated, robust; it’s also a world that, in image and philosophy, was partly invented by Hollywood (and currently available for rent through Airbnb).
Everything changes with the arrival of Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), Cal’s older sister. It enters like a storm, disturbing the calm; as Cal jokes later, if you don’t like the weather in Montana, wait five minutes. With abrupt, rushed impatience, Erin explains that she came from the East Coast to see their father, whom she hasn’t seen since he left seven years ago. She plans to leave soon after. Instead, she stays, and this decision of this angry, hurt, and defensive woman – Richardson wraps the character’s body tightly inward, as if in hiding – sets in motion a brutal reckoning and this story about his courses.
What emerges next is alternately hot and cold, elliptical and obvious, effective and sometimes less. As filmmakers, McGehee and Siegel enjoy engaging with traditional genres, albeit at a low-key and distinctly self-aware distance. (Their films include “The Deep End” and “What Maisie Knew.”) This creates a kind of double vision (theirs, yours), which is not a new strategy, admittedly, but can be difficult to pull off. When “Montana Story” works, you’re effortlessly pulled into a world — one that lets you go with the laid-back, realistic groove — even as you take stock of the artifice and wait for the hammer to drop.
As Cal grows worried and cautiously approaches Erin, attempting to reconnect, she pushes back, her face by turns opaque and knotted with rage. They continue to circle around and the story progresses – there’s a beloved old horse in the barn and an interested party inspecting the property – allowing each brother to emerge with clarity and reveal the relationships and pathologies of family. Even as he dies, Wade remains a gravitational force as powerful as the canned ideal he once embodied. As the story unfolds, the filmmakers play up Cal and Erin’s misfortune with insights into western identity, power, patriarchy, and mythos.
There’s a lot to love about “Montana Story,” including Teague and Richardson, who alone or together maintain emotional integrity. Richardson has the best role, even though his character has to butcher a sacrificial chicken. Teague is laden with some confessional speeches that, in their length and density, seem at odds with the otherwise naturalistic dialogue. More provocative than persuasive, these quasi-soliloquies add buckets of information, but you can hear the writing in every sentence and every weighted pause. And, unlike the crossfades that punctuate the film like chapter breaks, they unproductively disrupt the flow.