Montana Story (United States, 2021)

May 24, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Montana Story Poster

The wide-open vistas and panoramic views of snow-capped mountains stand in contrast to the small, deeply personal drama that represents the core of Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s Montana Story. The grandeur of Big Sky Country, captured with majesty and elegance by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens’ lenses, provides the backdrop for an intimate story of tragedy and reconnection that is no less riveting than the terrain where it transpires.

A man lies dying. Felled by a massive stroke that reduced him to a mental vegetable, he breathes only because of the equipment attached to him. He is watched over day-and-night by a full-time nurse named Ace (Gilbert Owuor), who has come to this country from Kenya. His housekeeper, Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero), comes regularly to do her duties. Everything is in a state of limbo when two adult children come home for a last visit with their father, whose state is such that he will never know they are there. But this isn’t the case of a loving son and daughter paying their final respects. Cal (Owen Teague) shows ambivalence toward the dying man. Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), who arrives unexpectedly after traveling from her home in upstate New York, is cold and brittle. She has come for reasons she doesn’t fully understand, possibly to gloat at this example of karma or to seek closure for the event that drove her out of Montana and caused her to cut off communication with her brother and father.

Cal and Erin, once close, are now strangers with an emotional gulf that’s deeper than the one that would naturally evolve from seven years of separation. The movie doesn’t immediately reveal what caused the breach, instead concentrating on their current interaction, which focuses on the fate of a 25-year old horse they both love. Cal believes euthanasia is the kindest solution; Erin is determined to bring him back home with her to live out his final days. The animal is the only thing about her childhood home she wants to remember.

McGehee and Siegel unveil the critical event carefully (and without the use of flashbacks). Cal relates it to Ace during a conversation and we hear in his voice the guilt and self-blame that have haunted him. Although their father was responsible, Erin thinks of Cal’s inaction as a betrayal of their closeness and, over time, he has come to accept her perspective. She leaves no room for ambiguity when she mentions that the lowest circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno is reserved for “betrayers of special relationships.” But, as a thunderstorm crashes overhead and the power goes out (silencing the equipment keeping their father’s vital systems functioning), they confront the poison that has leached into their relationship.

The interaction between Cal and Erin is kept low-key and believable and Montana Story is smart enough never to resort to the kind of cheap theatrics and histrionics that define bad melodrama. Owen Teague’s portrayal of the withdrawn Cal meshes well with Haley Lu Richardson’s portrait of barely controlled anger. Other actors – Gilbert Owuor, Kimberly Guerrero, and Asivak Koostachin (as Valentina’s son) – have supporting parts to add character to the movie, but the spotlight belongs to the leads.

Nuttgens is the third frontline contributor (alongside Teague and Richardson) and there are times when his work upstages what’s going on with the actors. There’s an amazing scene early in the film when Cal emerges from the house and our attention is so focused on the view from the porch that we lose all sense of what he’s doing. But Montana Story isn’t some film student’s attempt to use images to supplant plot. The visual aspects are crucial but they never overwhelm the very human, very relatable story at the center of it all.

Bleecker Street Media, the film’s distributor, is giving the film a limited theatrical platform distribution, in which it rolls out gradually across different markets before transitioning to the more widely accessible digital/streaming.

Montana Story (United States, 2021)

Director: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Cast: Owen Teague, Haley Lu Richardson, Gilbert Owuor, Kimberly Guerrero
Home Release Date: 2022-07-12
Screenplay: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens
Music: Kevin Morby
U.S. Distributor: Bleecker Street
Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 2022-05-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1