by Tanner Stechnij Film

Montana Story | Scott McGehee and David Siegel

Credit: TIFF

Not even Haley Lu Richardson’s expected luminosity can save the plainness of the protracted, estranged family drama Montana Story. Seven years after Richardson’s Erin left her family’s ranch in Montana, her abusive, dodgy lawyer of a father lays comatose in his study after suffering a stroke. First to come home is Erin’s brother, Cal, played stoically and reservedly by Owen Teague, who takes on the estate responsibility and settlements of familial debts as his dad’s final days tick by under the care of Ace, a passive Gilbert Owuor. It’s a conversation between Ace and Cal that divulges all of the family details in the most dramatically unsatisfying, expository fashion, removing agency from Erin and offering only scenery for Richardson to chew. Despite missed opportunities like these, the film still features a strong, albeit recognizable bit of performance: Richardson shines as a frustrated runaway who’s abandoned some of her country foibles but has brought her ranch skills to Upstate New York, working as a chef at a farm-to-table restaurant. Her guards are up, she’s distrustful of her father’s condition and her brother’s intentions, but as the scope of her childhood trauma comes into view, she trades in scoffs and irritation for reserved contrition and acceptance. Teague’s performance is firm yet sweet, portraying the handy country boy and steady family member handsomely and appropriately blandly, his gorgeous, understated denim and western wear often shining more colorfully than the role. But both are often let down by a script that struggles with overtness — even in the most impassioned scene, as Cal and Erin gaze across seemingly infinite land and discuss Dante’s Inferno and the circles of hell, the wheels turn too much, making too much of a false point of Erin’s distance from her home. 

The film, shot in 35mm by Giles Nuttgens and edited by Isaac Hagy, relies on stately craft conventions like elegant, endless fades to black and a bevy of wide shots. Yes, Montana looks gorgeous, from the big blue sky to the hollowed-out, never-ending depths of the copper mines, but that only speaks to how photogenic the mountainous vistas are and not to the artfulness or intentionality of the camerawork. There’s something to be said for letting nature signify and speak for itself, but it doesn’t work when the story is so dull, a film so transparently of its time and one that relies on over-done family dynamics. In an introduction played before the film, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, familiar names in TIFF’s programming, speak of their inspiration — the pandemic — throwing around thin buzzwords like “family” and “regret.” The question, then, is what exactly about a once-in-a-lifetime crisis inspires such mawkish, familiar melodrama?

Published as part of TIFF 2021 — Dispatch 4.

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