Seeking out the

5000 greatest films

in a century of cinema

The Unknown Country

Directed by Morrisa Maltz
Produced by Katherine Harper, Morrisa Maltz, Vanara Taing, Laura Heberton, Tommy Heitkamp, and Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux
Screenplay by Morrisa Maltz Story by Lily Gladstone, Morrisa Maltz, Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, and Vanara Taing
With: Lily Gladstone, Raymond Lee, Richard Ray Whitman, Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, Devin Shangreaux, Jasmine Shangreaux, and Pam Richter
Cinematography: Andrew Hajek
Editing: Vanara Taing
Music: Samuel Jones and Alexis Marsh
Runtime: 85 min
Release Date: 28 July 2023
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color: Color

Lily Gladstone's distinctive screen presence has been the most captivating aspect of several films, from her small role in Arnaud Desplechin's Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (2012) to her breakthrough performance in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women (2016), to her acclaimed and awarded turn in Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon (2023). In each case, she's been in supporting roles playing women of few words whose reserve conceals intensely felt internal emotions. In Morrisa Maltz's The Unknown Country, Gladstone has the lead role, yet she is still the film's quietest and most mysterious character. Few contemporary actors convey as much with their faces. We need no exposition to understand that something is aching inside the women she plays, and the filmmakers seem to understand that the less they tell us about her characters, the more intrigued we'll be.

The Unknown Country achieves something similar in a very different way. Maltz employs a semi-improvised, semi-documentary approach. The only actors in the film are Gladstone and Raymond Lee (who shows up late in the picture). The rest of the film is populated by regular folks, starting with a waitress at a diner where Gladstone's Tana is having breakfast, continuing to Tana's cousin Lainey's wedding, and on through the various people Tana encounters as she embarks on an unplanned journey through the Midwest toward the Texas border. Most of these people play themselves, and the movie often digresses from Tana's story and gives us a little documentary portrait of these individuals.

This may sound like the kind of Chloé Zhao, True/False, more-artificial-than-the-most-contrived-Hollywood-bullshit style of filmmaking that I dislike. This is a growing trend in fiction films made by filmmakers who want to tell a story but don't know how—they coast on the fact that the actors/characters in their movie are real people, as if that makes the film more honest or legitimate than writing a strong script and producing it. But this method rarely delivers a satisfying picture. However, several factors raise The Unknown Country to a level above other examples of this approach.  We never feel that authenticity is used to dress up a rote narrative, with Zhao’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) or The Rider (2018). The heavy hand of the filmmaker does not feel pervasive the way it does in recent documentaries that incorporate fiction techniques like The Mole Agent (2020) or Dick Johnson is Dead (2020). There is nothing pretentious or precious about this simple 85-minute picture. It invites the viewer to experience several familiar emotions through its captivating protagonist. Though the picture employs the type of handheld, widescreen, heavy-on-the-tight-shots approach favored by many directors and cinematographers these days, Maltz, DP Andrew Hajek, and editor Vanara Taing never forget that a good road movie needs to pull back and spend time contemplating the horizon, the wide open spaces, and the natural elements that surround the characters.

But what truly makes this movie special is Gladstone's performance. All we know about Tana is that her ailing mother, whom she's been caring for for two years, has recently died. Tana is carrying the heartbreak of that loss, but the grief and mourning behind her kind eyes and soft smile seem to extend beyond the sadness of losing a parent. A more generalized melancholy comes through Tana's radiant face and body language even as she engages in simple pleasures like helping her cousin (Lainey Bearkiller) prepare for her wedding, playing with her cousin's delightful daughter (Jasmine Shangreaux), and meeting a charming young guy (Lee) while on the road, and flirting companionably with him.

Most of us have experienced low times when the best option is to drop out of our life routines for a while and reconnect with old friends or loved ones with whom we may have lost touch. The ideal way to do this, at least for Americans, involves driving long distances by yourself in a car and "just kind of floating," which is how Tana describes what she's doing. Thus, the little documentary vignettes in An Unknown Country, which could easily come across as disconnected from Tana's story and more like Maltz making some statement about the people she's making her movie with, feel like the type of memories we have when we connect with someone for a very short period. When we meet folks while traveling, they often leave a lasting impression, even if we only get to know them for a few minutes. Thus, Maltz and Gladstone create a movie that is as timeless and universal as it is specific to its era, region, and population.

Twitter Capsule:

Lily Gladstone brings her signature quiet reserve, which has made her so unforgettable in supporting roles, to the lead in Morrisa Maltz's elegiac road picture.