‘Montana Story’ review : Haley Lu Richardson is quietly radiant in this classic western melodrama | TIFF 2021

With classical melodrama baked into its bones, Montana Story directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel sets an intimate character drama against the vastness of Montana’s rolling landscapes. Despite the understated nature of the film which prioritizes the minutia of familial expectations there’s a note of peculiarity on how the film is both shot and written that allows the story to transcend some of its clunkier, exposition-heavy moments. From the atmospheric score from composer Kevin Corby to the stellar performances from Owen Teague and, in particular, the always superb Haley Lu Richardson, and the cinematography from Giles Nuttgens which encapsulates the endlessness of the state they’ve found themselves in. These elements make the story suspended in time; appropriate for a film that derives so much of its enriching story from timeless narrative beats. 

Cal (Teague) has just returned home following his father’s stroke which has placed him into a coma. With no hope of him waking up, he’s arrived to put things in order which is an uphill battle considering the debt his father has left the wavering ranch in with its chickens and 25-year-old horse on its last legs. As he tries to arrange the end-of-life proceedings his sister, Erin (Richardson) arrives back home after seven years since she ran away following a severe beating at the hands of her father. With tension between the two due to a then 15-year-old Cal being incapable to help her as she was beaten to near death as well as his decision to put down the horse, the two work at confronting old wounds while trying to come to terms with their father’s deteriorating health and their futures without the ranch as a beacon home. 

If there was something that needed a greater edit it is, without doubt, the script which finds itself leaning heavily on exposition dumps and monologues as a means to convey character motivation and action. It’s not so much that it needs to show and not tell but rather, allow ambiguity to color the telling so that we’re allowed room to process it on our own terms. The strain in Erin and Cal’s relationship is evident from their first interaction and it’s clear from when Erin sees her father that their parting wasn’t pretty and the assumption that he hurt her isn’t a leap. Instead, the filmmakers sit us down as Cal unloads his families demons to the soft-spoken nurse, Ace (Gilbert Owuor) in a scene that lays all out there so that we understand her behavior and the context of their awkwardness all in one sequence, rather than playing it out so that it all remains vague until the climatic breakdown the film is building towards. 

Courtesy of TIFF

That being said, Montana Story remains, ultimately, a moving story about forgiveness and what happens when faith in a loved one is forever altered. Teague casts a striking figure, perfectly fit for the modern Western backdrop they place him against. He and Owuor share gentle chemistry in their few shared scenes, so much so that we wish Owuor had been given significantly more to do rather than act as a reactionary to the siblings’ problems. However, as is often the case with every movie she’s in, Richardson shines brightest as the wounded soul returning home against her best instincts and all to say goodbye to a man who almost killed her and deserves little by way of safe passage. She is absurdly naturalist and assured in her performance, the ideal example of refusing the urge to take up space and instead, demonstrating just how much she can convey with so little. She is devastating in the role yet never comes across as broken, simply healing. And in the healing comes forgiveness and, thankfully, it isn’t directed at her father but the brother who stood by and watched, doing nothing as she suffered at their father’s hands. 

The film, aided immensely by the natural beauty of Montana as well as the overwhelming expanse of it, is striking, with shots of the landscape that look damn near fake in just how they manage to make the characters look so small in comparison. From the lush wide shots to the warmth in the production design that makes a home many can recognize and not just those who have lived in the area, Montana Story is undoubtedly mesmerizing, both in looks and performances. If only the script had played its biggest emotional beats closer to the chest and prioritized refinement rather than plain, naked emotion, then the film might’ve lived up to the performances of its central characters. 

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