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The Unknown Country

Midnight blues melt into velvety blacks, punctuated by motel signs, gleaming lonely neon sometimes blurred by rain or snow on the windshield. These aren't national chain motels. You have to get off the interstate to find them. An old guy behind the front desk hands out the room keys and makes friendly banter. He doesn't find it odd when a customer pulls up at midnight and rings the doorbell. People are on the move in this massive country, to parts known and unknown. They need a warm bed for the night, maybe a friendly face so the road won't feel so lonely. Inside the chilly room, pink neon floods through the window.

These are some of the images in Morrisa Maltz's stunning narrative debut "The Unknown Country," a lyrical and poetic journey, as well as an actual journey, from the snowy wastes of South Dakota's Badlands to the humid nights of the Lone Star State. Lily Gladstone plays Tana, an Indigenous woman setting out for Texas after her grandmother's death. The story isn't "filled in" until later, but the details are almost unnecessary. It is enough to know that Tana is grieving her grandmother and missing what she never had, a sense of an extended community. She drives across the great plains of America, visiting her Oglala Lakota family, people she hasn't seen in a long time, attending her cousin's wedding, stopping off in motels, and meeting people along the way. She's alert to danger when necessary, and for Native women traveling alone, it's always necessary. But Tana is also open to friendliness and kindness, as shown in a sequence in Texas when she meets a group of people at an outdoor bar and ends up hanging out with them all night, having carefree fun. It's not an accident that "The Unknown Country" moves from the cold north to the warm south. It's a process of healing and integration for Tana, who has felt disconnected from her family and, by extension, her entire community. 

In the corporate world, there's a concept called "touchpoints," places where a customer interacts with the company. On a human level, "touchpoints" are those random moments where a stranger becomes a friend, where a person behind a convenience store counter makes it a point to connect with a customer, not because they want anything, but because connection with humans is where it's at. So much of our world seems now designed to help us avoid as many "touchpoints" as possible. "The Unknown Country" shows us what we're missing.

Maltz uses her background in documentary to create a fluid hybrid of a film, where real people tell their stories in voiceover, people whom Tana meets once before moving on: a cheerful waitress (Pam Richter) committed to giving her customers a happy memory (the film is dedicated to her), a convenience store clerk (Dale Toller) who makes the reticent Tana crack a smile, and shares in voiceover his long-held dream of meeting a man named Cole ... and damned if it didn't come to pass! There are more voices: a man who walked away from a successful engineering career to run a motel with his wife, a dance hall owner in Texas who bought the place so that 90-year-old Flo, a local legend, has a place to dance every night. These voices, homey and intimate, fill the air as Tana drives. There are other voices, too, on the radio. The contrast couldn't be starker: the voices of real people doing their best and the people on air, perpetuating division and conflict. Post-2016 reality doesn't even need to be acknowledged outright. It's in the oxygen.

The film was collectively conceived and written by Gladstone, Maltz, editor Vanara Taing, and Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, who appears in the film (and also produced). Gladstone interacts with people playing either a version of themselves or themselves outright. When Tana stops off to visit her cousin (Lainey Shangreaux), she is instantly welcomed by her estranged family. The Shangreauxs are still connected with reservation life (the "rez"), but Tana, from an urban environment, lacks that connection, maybe even shies from it. Tana attends Lainey and Devin's wedding and plays with their child Jasmine ("Jazzy"), a lively girl who loves dancing and being silly. Lainey tells her story in voiceover, her teenage Romeo and Juliet romance with Devin, sneaking out of windows to see each other, getting pregnant so they had to be together. When Devin says his wedding vows, tears are on his face. These are all incredibly touching scenes, and Gladstone easily immerses herself in this family, smoking butts with her cousin outside and drinking beers in a local pub. She feels welcome, but she also feels her outsider status. Tana stares at a picture of her grandmother, taken in 1940 while on a similar road trip. What was her life like? What can be learned? How can she grieve?

There's a key scene when Lainey and Tana go visit Lainey's grandfather (Richard Ray Whitman), brother to Tana's grandmother. He and Tana walk through the winter twilight, and he senses, as wise, experienced people often do, Tana's unanswered questions and her need to know her grandmother, to understand. He gives her a suitcase filled with her grandmother's possessions. A cotton housedress. A photo. These prompt more questions than answers, pushing Tana on in her quest.

Andrew Hajek's cinematography is awash in colors and sensitive to the nuances of light: cold or deep, harsh or soft. Lens flares are almost a cliche, but not how they're used here. Light melts or refracts. Those dark blues and floating neon signs, the "O" of MOTEL reflected in the windshield, the monochromatic snowy landscape, and the deep colors of a windy twilight in the middle of nowhere, all this gives "The Unknown Country" an amazing tactile quality. You don't watch the movie. You experience it through your senses.

Kelly Reichardt's "Certain Women" was peopled with giant names: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart. But Lily Gladstone, as the farmhand taking night classes, was the standout. Staring at her sleep-deprived teacher (Stewart) in the front of the classroom after riding her horse to class and sharing a coffee at a late-night diner ... Gladstone gives a nearly wordless performance (as she does here, too), but Gladstone doesn't need words. It's all on her face. In "Certain Women," her face told of a kind of yearning, the romantic nature hidden beneath the surface of a hearty woman who works with her hands. It's so exciting to see her here, too. She doesn't speak much, but her energy differs greatly from "Certain Women." Her character here is shyer, and less confident, and her thawing out takes a little longer. It will be even more exciting to see Gladstone in Martin Scorsese's upcoming "Killers of the Flower Moon."

The ending scene doesn't quite land, although the cathartic intention is apparent. What matters is Gladstone's face, taking in the world around her and all those voices, telling us who they are, what they've been through. In the corner of a family photo hanging on the wall of the Shangreaux home is a small piece of paper with a quote from poet Mary Oliver:

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

It's really the only question.

Now playing in theaters. 

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Film Credits

The Unknown Country movie poster

The Unknown Country (2023)

Rated NR

85 minutes

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