“I try to treat my customers well because you never know what’s going on in someone’s life,” says Pamela Richter in “The Unknown Country,” serving up a fresh cup of Joe to Tana (Lily Gladstone), who is ostensibly the film’s central focus, though director Morissa Maltz sees fit to follow the kindly waitress home. A collector of stray cats, she talks about making a life for herself and other stragglers in North Dakota, Tana’s first stop on a cross-country trip that will ultimately take her to Texas and along the way, Maltz formally breaks from the narrative at hand to dig deeper into the real lives of those who live on the side of the highway who are often passed by without much attention. While Pamela is the first to suggest to pay them no mind is a mistake, she is far from the last as the open road becomes a little less lonely for Tana in this lovely drama as she meets real residents of the places she visits.
While Pamela sets the film’s generous tone, she also puts words to its main question as every person is an enigma, none more so than Tana, whose motivation to drive a beat-up Cadillac for hundreds of miles only gradually emerges. She carries an old photograph with her that might have a hint, but more details are drawn out largely from the kindness of strangers she can confide in while remaining largely anonymous. Still, Tana remains mostly an enigma among the warm and gregarious people who bring her out of her shell, whether it’s a convenience store clerk who charms her with jokes while she’s trying to pay or the owner of a Dallas dance hall who confesses she’s kept the doors open almost solely because of one elderly patron who continues to come there every night.
Betting big on the idea that simply keeping an eye on the luminous Gladstone for an hour-and-a-half would be enough for a compelling film, it’s a wager that pays off as the actress is able to carry the mystique of the fictional character she’s playing while engaging with the nonprofessional cast Maltz enlists for the journey. Not only did the director make the trek herself to find her cast before bringing Gladstone onto the project, but co-writer Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux incorporated her wedding, a traditional Native American exchanging of vows that is indicative of the fact that the most transcendent roadside attractions in the film are rarely the majestic scenery but the tender private moments between people that are given a rare view here. Although it takes after the swoony, impressionistic shooting style popularized by Terrence Malick that now feels like par for the course, the notion that what’s being captured is elusive feels specifically apropos here and while “The Unknown Country” defies its title to a degree, it leaves enough mystery about its characters and the land we all inhabit to demonstrate it’s worthwhile to want to explore more.
“The Unknown Country” will screen at SXSW on March 15th at 8:45 pm at the Alamo Lamar A and March 17th at 9 pm at the AFS Cinema. It will also be available virtually to SXSW Online badgeholders from March 14th-16th.