Montana Story review: Well-acted western takes its time

Montana Story is not a film about cowboys, cowgirls, shootouts, or the bloodied history of the American West. Instead, it’s a film about two estranged siblings who are brought back together when their father enters a coma and they are forced to begin saying goodbye to their family ranch. The kids are not ranchers, and neither was their father. As a matter of fact, one of the siblings even clarifies at one point in Montana Story that their father was never a rancher. He just bought the ranch because he liked the idea of it.

For those reasons, one may dispute Montana Story’s status as a contemporary Western. But the new film from writer-director duo Scott McGehee and David Siegel feels uniquely attuned to the draw and sorrow of the American West. The region’s history has been marred by bloodshed and thievery, but the expansive nature of Big Sky Country is still powerful enough to make it seem like the region’s forgotten promise of freedom is one that still exists.

That tension between the West’s unfortunate history and untethered, limitless rural sprawl is reflected in Montana Story. The film tells the story of Erin (Haley Lu Richardson) and Cal (Owen Teague) as they find themselves brought back together by their father’s impending death, but their reunion is weighed down by the violent tragedy that tore them apart in the first place. Like the very region they’ve found themselves in, Cal and Erin have to decide if they are going to come to grips with their tragic history and move on from it or let their reunion be the last chapter in their relationship.

Leaving the West behind

Mukki looks at Cal and Erin in Montana Story.
Bleecker Street, 2022

Once Montana Story actually forces Cal and Erin to begin reckoning with the fractured state of their relationship, the film manages to tell a largely compelling and emotionally engaging story. However, Siegel and McGehee’s script takes a bit too long to get going, with the duo prolonging Erin’s arrival in favor of establishing Cal’s various responsibilities and the instability of his father’s finances. Those early minutes are when the film’s attempts to tell a broader, socially relevant story are most clear, and they’re also when Montana Story’s languid pace is most evident.

Fortunately, Montana Story’s second half is considerably stronger than its first, and that’s thanks to the work done by Haley Lu Richardson and Owen Teague. The latter turns in a devastating, wounded performance as Cal. From the moment Richardson’s Erin shows up, Teague wears his character’s shame, regret, and loneliness on his sleeve, and during his inevitable disintegration in the film’s third act, Teague lays Cal’s self-loathing and desperation for forgiveness totally bare.

Opposite Teague, Richardson continues to prove herself to be one of cinema’s most luminous young performers. She turns in another stunningly assured performance as Erin, playing the character’s reservedness and anger with unwavering confidence right up until the moment when she is finally allowed to let her feelings of betrayal and sorrow spill out of her. Together, she and Teague manage to bring Montana Story’s tale of sibling estrangement to an emotionally satisfying and cathartic conclusion.

The film does take its time getting to that point though, and many may find its deliberately slow pace more frustrating than spell-binding. But Richardson and Teague’s uncompromising performances make up for many of the film’s pacing and plotting problems, and fans of the Western genre may find themselves surprised by Montana Story. It’s a film that, while lacking many of the genre’s visual symbols, is obsessed with many of the same themes that are at the center of some of cinema’s greatest Westerns — namely, the marks violence can leave not just on people, but also an entire region.

Montana Story hits theaters on Friday, May 13, 2022.

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