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Tana, the compassionate protagonist of The Unknown Country, is asked about her plans at one point in the movie and answers with a slightly embarrassed smile: “Just kinda floatin.’ ” Cut loose from the day-to-day by the death of her grandmother and far from home, Tana might not have a specific itinerary, but, mile by mile in what will turn out to be a 2,000-mile journey, she’s searching, in her guarded way, and open to possibilities. Lily Gladstone inhabits the role with warmth and deep wells of feeling, striking nuanced notes in Tana’s watchful solitude as well as her interactions. The people Tana meets during her travels include characters played by actors and real-life locals playing themselves, and the quiet but stirring effect is a dreamscape of eye-opening geography, existential longing and the enduring workaday.
Filmed over a four-year period, screenwriter-director Morrisa Maltz’s drama began as a photography project and grew into a feature, the story of Tana’s mourning and awakening and her return to her Oglala Lakota roots a joint effort by Maltz, Gladstone, producer-castmember Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux and producer-editor Vanara Taing. The collaborative process between Native American writer-performers and a non-Native director in some ways echoes that of War Pony, but The Unknown Country doesn’t rely on genre beats or structure. This is a road trip in the purest and most literal sense, the telling spare in an odyssey of self, family history and small-town America.
The Unknown Country
A memorable, heart-expanding journey.
Release date: Friday, July 28
Cast: Lily Gladstone, Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, Devin Shangreaux, Jasmine Bearkiller Shangreaux, Raymond Lee, Richard Ray Whitman, Pam Richter, Scott Stample, Dale Leander Toller, Florence R. Perrin, Teresa Boyd
Screenwriter-director: Morrisa Maltz
1 hour 26 minutes
The country referred to in the film’s title is the vast central swath of the United States and the people who call it home, a rich and varied geographical middle whose inhabitants tend to be disdained, romanticized, condescended to or generally misunderstood in many contemporary stories about America. The unknown territory is also an inner region, a new emotional landscape for Tana after several years as full-time caretaker to her ailing grandparent, the woman who raised her.
The movie begins with a jolting sense of movement and dislocation, thrusting us into a frigid winter night as Tana gets behind the wheel of her grandmother’s sturdy, unflashy Cadillac and takes off from Minneapolis. It will eventually become clear that she’s headed toward a family gathering in Spearfish, South Dakota, not far from Deadwood, but rather than front-load the narrative with explanatory info, Maltz remains focused on the immediate sensory experience of the drive: the two-lane highways, roadside diners and motels.
Against the chirr and thrum and crescendo of talk radio, news and sermons (the sound design is by Liz Marston), Tana makes her way over the snow-covered flatlands of the Great Plains (the drone cinematography is by Will Graham). DP Andrew Hajek’s fluent camerawork captures the play of neon against the dark as well as the plain comfort of a booth and a cup of coffee. The filmmakers are also alert to the vulnerability of a woman on the road alone, and they stir up a little terror in a nighttime gas station scene with a key assist from the score, which surges like a breath held just before a scream. (The music, by Alexis Marsh and Sam Jones, with additional contributions from Neil Halstead, heightens the story’s emotional shifts throughout the movie.)
In Maltz’s hybrid approach, some of the seams between fiction and nonfiction are purposely visible. The artfulness of these sutures enriches the film. In voiceover, against scenes of their home life, the “real people” whom Tana encounters tell their stories, and the telling has the distilled potency of poetry. The first of these is a vivacious coffee shop waitress, Pamela Jo Richter, who talks about the cats she’s adopted and the customer who became a benefactor. (The closing-credits postscript pays tribute to Richter, who died in 2020.) A convenience store clerk (Dale Leander Toller) with a weakness for puns describes his decades-long wait for the man of his literal dreams, and the proprietor of an all-ages dance hall (Teresa Boyd) explains why a nonagenarian regular (Florence R. Perrin) is her inspiration to keep the business running. Peering into so-called ordinary lives, Maltz offers glimpses of the extraordinary.
In Spearfish, the lovely real-life wedding of Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux (playing Tana’s cousin) and Devin (Devin Shangreaux) packs a wallop of understated emotion. These nuptials are the reason for Tana’s trip, and the timing, so soon after her grandmother’s death, amplifies her aloneness and her need to connect. Among people she hasn’t seen since she was 8 — about the age of Lainey and Devin’s spirited daughter, Jazzy (Jasmine Bearkiller Shangreaux) — Tana is all polite smiles and genuine curiosity. Gladstone’s unadorned restraint navigates an infinitesimal distance between self-conscious reserve and the unfolding of a clenched, grieving heart.
That unfolding deepens on a side trip with the newlyweds to visit Lainey’s grandfather (an exceptionally affecting Richard Ray Whitman). This proves a key reconnection for Tana; Grandpa August is the younger brother of her late grandmother, and along with his quiet wisdom and reminiscences of how adventurous his sister was, he gives Tana a small suitcase her grandmother left behind when she departed the reservation for good. Lovingly placed on the Caddy’s back seat and unopened until the final sequence, it’s a time capsule for Tana, paired with a 1940 photo of her grandmother that she carries like a talisman.
Maltz slightly overdoes the montage-of-joy effects when Tana befriends a group of people her age in Dallas, but the sequence nonetheless plays out with a realistic edge. And it defies expectations, Tana’s bond with the clearly smitten Isaac (a fine down-to-earth turn from Raymond Lee, of Quantum Leap) leading to revelations more interesting than a romantic hookup.
Likewise, the final scenes, when Tana has made her way from the frozen upper Midwest to the arid mountains of West Texas, are almost too on-the-nose in their sense of discovery for Tana. Almost.
But Gladstone, who grabbed film lovers’ attention with her unspoken heartache in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, and whose central role in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon will certainly bring her to wider attention, achieves something remarkable here. Not unlike Ashley Judd in Ruby in Paradise, she has a natural radiance that the camera adores, and Maltz and her collaborators are fully attuned to its expressive power and clarity. It’s in the way Tana’s face crumbles when she’s pulled over by a cop, and in the way she takes in the loving words of her great-uncle. It’s in the way she gets back on the road, again and again, toward a place as amorphous as it is precise, as epic as it is personal.