Movies about childhood trauma rarely come as powerfully understated as Montana Story. Unfolding beneath a Montana sky so clear and expansive you can almost feel the wind whipping through your hair, the film is one of heavy and suppressed sorrow, featuring a brother and sister who each carry a burden of unresolved grief. Owen Teague and Haley Lu Richardson play Cal and Erin, estranged half-siblings who reunite at their family’s ranch to say goodbye to their dying father. It’s a reunion that neither sibling expected, nor wanted. But the empty skies and endless rolling hills give them nowhere to hide as they finally confront their feelings toward their father and each other. This is a deeply felt work anchored by two earthy performances that stay small-scaled no matter how melodramatic the slowly revealed secrets become.
Montana Story is a welcome return for writer-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, whose best films, most notably 2012’s What Maisie Knew, are tightly focused character pieces that shine a harsh light on family dynamics, oftentimes asking the viewer to reconsider what constitutes a family and the forces that hold it together or tear it apart. Their debut feature, 1993’s Hitchcockian thriller, Suture, is about two estranged half-siblings, and Montana Story features the same kind of pairing. Maybe they think the bond between half-siblings is not as natural and therefore less stable than that of full siblings which, under the wrong conditions, can only lead to trouble. Regardless, Suture’s sense of experimentation is nowhere to be found in the more straightforward Montana Story, where two emotionally fragile twentysomethings struggle to reconnect after experiencing the worst that childhood can dish out.
It’s fairly obvious from the get-go that Cal harbors no love for his father and has returned home reluctantly to wrap up the elder man’s affairs. Upon arriving at the ranch, Cal walks right by the comatose Wade (Rob Story), who is hooked up to life-sustaining machines in his study, and goes straight for the family’s 25-year-old horse, Mr. T. What to do with the aging stallion is only one of the responsibilities heaped upon his shoulders. Cal must also oversee the sale of his father’s assets, including the ranch, to avoid bankruptcy and to pay his medical bills. All this seems slightly above Cal’s pay grade, and the tall and lanky Teague, with his wide-open face, is quite believable as the silently anguished son pushing through the pain to perform a familial duty.
While Teague cuts a classic Western figure, Richardson is the revelation here. Erin’s grudging return to the ranch after running away seven years earlier lights a long-dormant set of internal fireworks, and the Support the Girls standout conveys Erin’s conflicting emotions with only the slightest movements of her face or flattening of her voice. When Cal announces he’s having Mr. T put down, Erin’s expression barely changes from seconds earlier when she was wistfully brushing the horse’s mane. But we sense the pain she’s feeling. Later, she decides to do something for the horse she would never do for her hated father: keep him alive. She tells Cal she’s going to transport the horse to her home in upstate New York. Cal reacts by asking his estranged half-sister, “You live in New York?”
At first, McGehee and Siegel (who co-wrote the script along with Mike Spreter) are purposely stingy with the details of why Erin is so spiteful towards Wade and why she abandoned the family. But Teague and Richardson keep us thoroughly engaged as Cal and Erin’s deeply negative feelings are slowly rekindled and stand ready to boil over. Eventually, Cal spills all to Wade’s gentle, straight-talking Kenyan caretaker, Ace (a sweet Gilbert Owuor). Instead of draining the film of its central mystery, the revelation refocuses our attention on whether Cal and Erin can repair their relationship. As the more aggrieved of the two, Erin has the furthest to travel emotionally. When she first arrives at the ranch, it sickens her that she feels any pity for her reviled father and she tries to book the next flight home. Later, when Cal gamely attempts to make conversation by telling Erin about his life in Cheyenne, she doesn’t even look at him, let alone respond. Slowly, Erin loosens up, first borrowing a cigarette from Cal, then telling of her life in New York, and then cooking dinner until the climactic confrontation, which is heartbreaking and well played by both parties.
A small group of ancillary characters dip in and out to reinforce the specificity of the environment and broaden the story. They include Mukki (a terrific Eugene Brave Rock), who assists Erin in the transport of Mr. T, and Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero), the housekeeper harboring her own secret that explains how Erin knew her father was deathly ill despite having cut off all contact with the family. Shooting on 35mm, cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who lensed 2016’s fantastic Hell Or High Water, refuses to prettify Montana’s wide-open spaces; instead, he trusts their natural beauty, which only increases the film’s authenticity. Also, much credit goes to editor Isaac Hagy for creating the gentle rhythms that allow moments to linger and emotions to sink in.
Talk of tight wallets, environmental reviews, and mining operations lacking government oversight hint at grander statements. Thankfully, McGehee and Siegel don’t take the bait, although having Erin run down all Nine Circles of Hell from Dante’s Inferno, while understandable thematically, stands out as a screenwriter’s conceit. Otherwise, Montana Story tells a well-worn tale with such remarkable care that it feels completely new. Cal and Erin come to understand that the pain of keeping your anger inside is worse than the pain of putting it out in the open so others can pass judgment on your failings. But the key to processing grief is to process every ounce of it, even if it takes seven years. Montana Story wrings much truth out of this idea, treating Cal and Erin with patience and compassion before and after the dam finally breaks.