The Unknown Country

After Tana’s (Lily Gladstone, "Certain Women") grandmother dies, she heads south from Minneapolis in the old woman’s white Cadillac.  After getting a call from her cousin Lainey (Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux), she’ll hesitantly reconnect with her Oglala Lakota family and cross paths with strangers whose stories she will never know in “The Unknown Country.”

Laura's Review: B

Released theatrically on the same day as Riley Keough and Gina Gammell’s feature debut “War Pony,” cowriter (with Lily Gladstone and Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux)/director Morrisa Maltz’s debut not only shares North Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation as a location, but had a similar genesis, her screenplay igniting and taking shape after she met Native American Lainey Bearkiller.  But while “War Pony” mostly stays on the reservation, Maltz’s film is a road movie, one which contemplates Middle America after the 2016 election.

At first it’s not entirely clear where Tana is heading as she drives long hours, stopping in at roadside diners and collapsing on motel beds, but Maltz does something unexpected by veering into the lives of those she comes in contact with.  Initially, we learn more about Tana’s waitress at the Hickock House diner, an older woman named Pam (Pam Richter, playing herself) who tells us she takes good care of her customers because one never knows what someone else may be going through, than Tana herself.  Maltz takes us inside Pam’s humble home to reveal the half dozen hard luck cats she’s taken in and Pam tells us about a regular customer who routinely tipped her with hundred dollar bills, paying it forward before passing away.

Tana seems uneasy when she gets a call from Lainey inviting her to her wedding and opening her home as a place to stay, an uneasiness intensified when a shifty looking guy at a gas station begins to follow her down a deserted highway.  But the latter is a red herring and the former dissipates as soon as she enters the doublewide Lainey shares with Devin (Devin Shangreaux) and their daughter Jazzy (Jasmine Shangreaux), who immediately takes a shine to the cousin we’ll learn hasn’t been home in 7 or 8 years.  Tana fields questions at a local bar, where more relatives arrive to share beers and banter, and her smile widens as the circle grows, Lainey and Devin’s wedding a combination of personal vows and Lakota custom.  She’s encouraged to visit ‘the res,’ where Grandpa August (Richard Ray Whitman, “Drunktown’s Finest”) will talk about the woman who left, telling Tana she looks just like her and that Tana carries her spirit.  He’ll gift her with a suitcase of her grandmother’s, one which carries the very dress she wears in the old snapshot Tana cherishes.  But it will be another stranger, Isaac (Raymond Lee, TV's 'Kevin Can F**k Himself'), who invites Tana to hang out with his friends, who pinpoints the very location her grandmother stands in in that photo.

Maltz skillfully evolves her movie’s tone, melancholy becoming fearful uncertainty before embracing a love of life.  She is particularly adept at evoking that feeling of restorative embrace family reunions can provide those who’ve been apart.   The film is studded with miniature character bios, Spearfish’s Motor Lodge owner Scott Stampe telling us how he found his late in life vocation by following his wife to her hometown; playful gas station manager Dale revealing he found his lifetime love Cole, a random customer he was attracted to, by simply stating he ‘loves a man who knows what he wants.’  Isaac and his friends will introduce Tana to The Western Kountry Klub in Midlothian, Texas, a dance hall we will learn was saved from closure by Teresa Boyd simply because she couldn’t bear to see 91 year-old Flo, who’d danced there every Friday for fifty years, lose the place.  Despite a country the media continually reports as irrevocably divided, Maltz and her protagonist find love almost everywhere they turn.

Cinematographer Andrew Hajek alternates drone shots of Tana’s car on lonely winding roads with intimate scenes in interior spaces, combining the two with the romance of roadside neon reflecting onto motel furnishings.  After celebrating the snowy terrain of the Dakotas (much loved by little Jazzy as she tells us in her fleeting bio), Hajek achieving a soulless chill in our introduction to Dallas.  Maltz weaves the two together in a big, small town, where Tana delights to a celebration featuring horse drawn ski jumping, yet is harassed by two inebriated locals; the sight of a young child prone atop a hay bale at first suggesting play, later boredom.

“The Unknown Country” may end on a predictable note, but nothing that leads us there has been in this moving and humanistic film.  (Sadly Hickock House diner’s Pam Richter died of COVID in 2020.)           

Robin's Review: B-

Music Box Films released "The Unknown Country" in select theaters on  7/28/23.  Click here for play dates.  It becomes available digitally on 9/12/23.