“The funny thing about not remembering is sometimes you’re better for it, it gets you into trouble,” Mukki (Eugene Brave Rock) tells Cal (Owen Teague) in “Montana Story” as he’s attempting to sell a truck and a trailer to his sister Erin (Haley Lu Richardson). It speaks volumes that he mistakes them for a couple rather than siblings, not because they are affectionate towards each other, but because they look unrelated, which can partially be attributed to having different mothers and also indicative of how disconnected they are when only a day before Cal learns his sister’s been living in New York for the past seven years after she left town and never looked back. Only their father’s impending death could bring the two together, with Cal attempting to make final arrangements in regards to an estate that will ultimately mostly be the province of bankruptcy courts anyway and Erin not making things any easier when besides their estrangement, she insists on keeping the last horse left on the ranch alive when the alternative is putting the 25-year-old thoroughbred to sleep.
However, little can be laid to rest in what’s perhaps the finest film from co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, which given their impressive collaboration going all the way back to “Suture” in 1993 is certainly saying something. You don’t make a drama as elegant and powerful as this without putting the time in, and the result is a gripping film that may not be much more than a brother and sister working out their differences yet takes on proportions akin to its mountainous surroundings. Shot during the pandemic though never feeling as if a product of it, in spite of a sly acknowledgement towards the beginning in which the family’s nurse Ace (Gilbert Owuor) insists on masks, the film wrings every bit of the considerable dramatic tension it can from Giles Nuttgen’s gorgeous compositions and McGehee and Siegel’s exacting dialogue that conveys the distance between Cal and Erin, who were once close until an unspeakable event involving their father put an end to that.
Neither has much love for their father now, making the fact that he lies comatose especially vexing when neither caring for him or talking to one another no longer comes naturally, with only each other to vent their frustrations to. Richardson, who may be unparalleled in her ability to let the cracks start to show in her steely resolve as she showed in “Columbus” and “Support the Girls,” couldn’t be any more compelling as Erin, who gradually opens up about where she’s been all these years even when what happened to her truly seems unforgivable and Teague is right there with her at every step as Cal, a little anxious and eager to restart their relationship yet trying to protect himself from getting hurt again if his feelings aren’t reciprocated. Although the film really works as a two-hander, Owuor and Kimberly Guerrero both shine as the others tending to the Thorne family’s affairs, as a thread of what obligation anyone owes to another is beautifully laced in and as guarded as all involved can be, the breadcrumbs everyone can’t help but leave about their lives in casual conversations meticulously build towards the moment in which everything is finally out in the open. The past may be impossible to leave behind in “Montana Story,” finding the parts in it that can still be salvaged to build a future on adds another dimension to how McGehee and Siegel leave one in awe of nature.
“Montana Story” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival virtually on September 15th at 5 pm and in person September 16th at 4 pm at the Cinesphere IMAX Theatre.