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.