Estranged siblings Cal and Erin return to the ranch where they grew up. Their father is dying; he wasn’t a good man so neither needs a tearful bedside goodbye, they’re more keen to bid farewell to the land they once loved, the horse they used to ride, the housekeeper who’s kept in touch.
Cal (Owen Teague) and Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), once close, no longer speak, their troubled childhoods breeding resentment rather than unification. But this death watch provides the opportunity to finally come to terms with what they’ve lost, and who they’ve blamed. Their father is a footnote, beyond redemption, but the relationship between the siblings, each the other’s only remaining family, could be saved if only they can overcome their regrets, sadness, disappointment, and the space that has grown between them for the past seven years. Joining their vigil are Ace (Gilbert Owuor), a philosophical nurse from Nairobi, and beloved housekeeper Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero), a Native American whose family has worked the land longer than the dying man has owned it. Originally a lawyer, the slimy kind who helps corporations pillage the land, he bought the ranch and subsequently ran it into the ground; the bank only awaits his death to repossess it.
This is a quiet movie done right. Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel understand intuitively that silence can be meaningful, can express things that too hard to say. Quiet moments can be healing as well, when done subtly, suggesting peace, or comfort. The directors let the dreamy Montana landscape become its own character, letting it fill not just the outdoor scenes, but every window and open door inside as well. Unlike The Power of the Dog, which is also set in Montana, this film actually filmed there, and they use the land to teach us about the characters – who respects it, who’s in awe of it, who’s afraid of it, who will use it up for profit.
Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens captures the natural beauty, but also helps to show that even wide open spaces can feel oppressive. In the end, when the body has been bagged, the nurse moved on to his next patient, the siblings packed up and gone their separate ways, only two things remain: the mountains, and Valentina. She and her family have cared for and protected the land for generations, and will continue to provide it stewardship through the comings and goings of many white families who treat the land as something they can own, and ranching as merely a hobby. American Indians have seven tribal reservations in Montana, home to a dozen tribes, including Blackfeet, Sioux, and Chippewa, on tiny slivers of land mere fractions of the land they once occupied. They are the real Montana story, the enduring one. This white family, with all its history and heartbreak, are but a blip.
Montana Story is an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival 2021.