Throughout the first hour of Montana Story, I kept waiting for a one-note villain to surface. In a more conventional neo-western, there would be an evil banker seeking to repossess the land or a ranch hand eager to put down an aging horse. Thankfully, there isn’t a character like that to be found here. That’s not to say there isn’t an antagonist who causes our leads instrumental pain. The twist is that he spends most of the movie in a coma, waiting for death to put him out of his misery. Even in this incapacitated state, though, the antagonist still has power over the characters.
Owen Teague is perhaps best known for his performances in Stephen King adaptations, including The Standand the It movies. He gives the most complex performance of his career thus far as Cal, the long-suffering son of a dying lawyer. His father (Rob Story) is comatose following a stroke. Although there’s no possibility of recovery, Cal remains by his ailing father’s side along with a live-in nurse (Gilbert Owuor). Although their ranch has fallen into bankruptcy, Montana Story isn’t about saving a beloved family home. It’s about picking up the pieces of a broken home and trying to rebuild.
The misty relationship between the father and son starts coming into the light with the return of Cal’s sister Erin (Haley Lu Richardson). From their first exchange, it’s evident that something traumatic transpired between Erin and her father with Cal in the middle. After being absent for years, Erin plans to say goodbye and get out of dodge. She extends her stay upon learning that Cal intends to put down Mr. T, the ranch’s cherished 25-year-old horse. Erin comes to Mr. T’s rescue, deciding to bring him back to New York with her. As Eric and Cal make the arrangements, they’re eventually forced to address the elephant in the room.
Montana Story is one of those films where little appears to be happening on the surface, but that’s part of the narrative’s brilliance. The film is about communication – or lack thereof – and how it drove the two siblings apart. The writing/directing duo of Scott McGehee and David Siegel wisely allow scenes to play out with long stretches of silence. That Silence is golden in the hands of two immensely promising up-and-comers. Richardson, in particular, is given the star vehicle that she deserves. In recent years, she’s mainly appeared as a supporting player in films like The Edge of Seventeen and Split. She took center stage in Five Feet Apart, which would’ve been forgettable if not for her transformative performance. In Montana Story, Richardson commands the screen as a young woman trying to find forgiveness while struggling to let go of her anger.
Cal is also clinging to anger, which isn’t solely directed at his cruel father. He’s just as angry with himself for what he didn’t do one fateful night years ago. As breathtaking as the landscapes can appear, there’s a sense of emptiness to the vast skies and fields that beautifully convey the distance between this family. Frank G. DeMarco’s atmospheric cinematography is instrumental in this exercise of showing over telling. The only thing more unnerving than the silence is the inevitable blowout. Once the characters finally confront their grief, though, the first steps towards healing are taken.