By Betsy Sherman
This beautifully crafted film relates how the past, particularly one crisis in this family’s past, has colored the siblings’ lives and affected their choices.
Montana Story, directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Opens May 20 at Landmark Kendall Square, AMC Boston Common, Dedham Community Theatre.
Three people are seated at a dinner table. A fourth lies in an adjacent room, horizontal, unconscious; his brain works only well enough to sustain his bodily functions. Even in this state, he holds power over two of those people, his grown son and daughter.
The other person is the live-in nurse, hired to care for this Montana ranch’s owner in his last days. With calm assurance, he says to his table-mates, “Your father is a man whose past is complete now. Nothing will be added to his story. He is the sum of his days.”
The beautifully crafted Montana Story relates how the past, particularly one crisis in this family’s past, has colored the siblings’ lives and affected their choices. They way they resolve their feelings about the crisis points to how they may live past its painful memory. Owen Teague (Mrs. Fletcher, The Stand) and Haley Lu Richardson (Columbus, Support the Girls) give strong, sensitive performances as these siblings in their twenties, who wait for the cessation of a life.
“Beautifully crafted” goes for many of the films made by the directing team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel (they also wrote the Montana Story screenplay, and share the story credit with Mike Spreter). They’re probably best known for The Deep End (2001), a superb remake of Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment starring Tilda Swinton. Their Suture (1994) and What Maisie Knew (2012) are also excellent. The new film is only their sixth; they don’t make much but what they make is choice.
Cal, played by the tall, lanky Teague, returns to the family ranch and is warmly greeted by long-time housekeeper Valentina. He meets Ace, the Kenyan nurse taking care of his father, who’s been moved to his ground-floor study for his final days (the father’s face is always hidden by an oxygen mask). We may wonder why Cal takes his time before entering the room. Anyway, we’re not privy to that encounter. At a lawyer’s office, Cal is told that the sale of the family ranch will just about cover his bankrupt Dad’s debts and medical bills.
Back at the ranch, Erin (Richardson), the half-sister whom Cal hasn’t seen in seven years, has arrived. Her mother died giving birth to her; his mother (whose death two years earlier Cal is still grieving) had been her nanny before becoming her father’s second wife. Erin and Cal were inseparable as children, with Erin being the alpha personality.
Their strong-willed father was an attorney, working for corporations that included a “toxic mess” of a copper mine trying to thwart government regulation. Erin, in her youthful idealism, publicly criticized the ethics of his work, an act that wounded his pride, and, in his view, his reputation. He took shockingly cruel and violent retaliation, not only against Erin, but also against an animal dear to her. Erin fled, never returning home—or letting Cal know where she went.
Erin, clenched and confounded, doesn’t quite know why she’s come across the country to see her father before the end. Cal’s eyes search for some kind of re-establishment of their bond; her eyes only deflect. She’s about to go back to the airport, that same afternoon. Then an opportunity arises, or so she thinks, where she can repair the past: she’ll rescue the 25-year-old horse, Mr. T, who was going to be euthanized as part of the dispersal of the ranch. Cal, though sympathetic, thinks she’d be crazy to haul the horse to upstate New York. Valentina gently makes Cal see the importance to Erin of taking some kind of action.
There are stretches of Montana Story with little dialogue, which seems apt in a Western setting. Information is let out slowly, like fishing line, culminating in confessions and revelations. The lead actors have no problems communicating with body language. Richardson makes it plain that Erin is a doer, confident if sometimes impatient; it shows in the way she drives, struggles with (lack of) cell phone reception, and, yes, kills a chicken for dinner (Erin is now a cook at a farm-to-table enterprise, living out her environmentalist principles). Teague says volumes about the introspective Cal with the tightening of his jaw and the awkward placements of his angular body. The character spends so much of the movie seeming unmoored that it’s nice to eventually hear that he’s pursuing a career he loves; he too is living out his principles.
The land is an important component in the siblings’ path toward reconciliation. The filmmakers give us awe-inspiring vistas and long lonely highways (the movie was shot in Montana’s Paradise Valley). But the interior cinematography is also crucial. The framing, especially of the bedridden father, is as important in what it conceals as what it shows. A moment that solidifies our empathy with the often difficult Erin is when the camera seems to sink and kneel in front of her as she tells her version of what happened on that day seven years earlier.
The small cast includes only six substantial speaking parts. Montana Story’s supporting cast members give wonderful performances, led by Gilbert Owuor as the compassionate, tactful nurse Ace (whose leisure reading is The Friend, Sigrid Nunez’s novel about death, grieving and animals). The other characters are Native Americans, with Kimberly Guerrero as Valentina; Asivak Koostachin as her son Joey, who grew up with Erin and Cal; and Eugene Brave Rock as Mukki, whom the siblings meet through a Craig’s List vehicle sale. Mukki’s story reverses the trajectory of Erin’s flight to New York and underlines the cruelty in American history: his people, the Mohicans, were forced west, and his family eventually settled among Montana’s Blackfeet.
And then there’s ol’ Mr. T, that other character said to be at the end of his life. Neither too pathetic nor too handsome, he serves as a symbol of patience and stoicism. Until, that is, he’s allowed some unexpected dynamism. In the closing passages, he becomes more than just a macguffin—he proves to be a valuable member of the ensemble.
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for the Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, and Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.