In the middle of a snowy Minneapolis night, Tana (Lilly Gladstone) takes off in her late grandmother’s Cadillac for a journey that will take her to Spearfish, South Dakota to visit her Native American relatives, a visit to the Pine Ridge Reservation for a reunion with her great uncle, a tribal elder, finally arriving in Dallas to make new friends and dance the Cupid Shuffle with 91-year-old Flo, a regular at the tiny western dance hall for over 50 years. Set to an ethereal score featuring songs by Slowdive and Beach House, “The Unknown Country” is a beautifully shot film of a land united that leaves the viewer longing for the harmony displayed in this cross-section of the American Midwest.
Soon Lily Gladstone will appear on the radar of a multitude of moviegoers who will discover her for the first time when Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” opens in theaters this October. Fans of independent and art house cinema, however, have been enjoying her work in films that include Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” and “First Cow,” Geoff Marslett’s “Quantum Cowboys,” and Laura Heberton’s “Freeland.” Now you have one more opportunity to discover Gladstone before the masses thanks to Morrisa Maltz’s debut narrative feature, the follow-up to her 2018 documentary “Ingrid.”
As Tana leaves the bright lights and big city, she listens to Talk Radio as the hosts discuss “Who is American?” It’s 2019, and the images in the news are of a country divided, a scary place to be especially if you are a female on the road alone being judged by your skin color. There are moments in the film that convey the tension that permeates the land that according to Arlo Guthrie and Woody Guthrie, “was made for you and me.” In one instance, Tana stops for gas and notices a man staring at her while he fills up his pickup. Upon leaving, she notices him following her. Coincidence or something more threatening?
As morning appears over the horizon, the cinematography by Andrew Hajek (born and raised in Dallas) comes into view. Spectacular shots of snow-covered vistas contrasted by views of the warm neon glow landscape that illuminates the darkness as Tana stops at several motels and restaurants on her journey.
Maltz incorporates real people into the narrative, giving “Unknown” a documentary aesthetic that intrinsically blends fact with fiction. The film’s charm comes from the individuals we meet along the way who get to tell their stories as well. There’s Pam who serves up coffee and smiles at a diner in South Dakota. When she’s not using pom-poms while rattling off an original cheer, Pam is asking customers if they’d like to hear her sing “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Later in the film, we visit Pam at home with her many cats as she tells her story, “The cats were all kind of given to me like nobody wanted them.” She also speaks of a generous stranger who kept leaving her big tips at the diner.
The vignettes also include convenience store manager Dale, a gay man with an infectious smile who dreamt about the love of his life before he walked through the doors, “I could see his face quite clearly just as it is now,” and Teresa, the owner of honkey tonk just south of Fort Worth whose husband was playing in a band there one night and never left. Originally, she was against purchasing the dance hall but after meeting senior Florence or “Flo” as she’s known to the regulars (who has been dancing there for more than five decades), Teresa had a change of heart, “It just tickled my heart so much to see her love such a place.”
Tana’s first stop is at the South Dakota home of her estranged cousin Lainey Bearkiller Shangreux, husband Devin, and daughter Jasmine. As Lainey tells her story, we find out that she met Devin when they were 13 at the Pine Ridge Reservation, “We got tired of our parents trying to keep us away from each other” she states, so the two decided to have a baby so their parents couldn’t keep them apart.
When Tana goes back to her roots by visiting the reservation, she’s reunited with Grandpa August (Richard Ray Whitman), the younger brother of her late grandmother, who comments that Tana looks just like his sister. “She was almost a second mother to me,” he tells her as they reminisce about Tana’s grandmother. Whitman, a Yuchi Muscogee/Creek artist, poet, and actor has appeared in various films and series, including “Reservation Dogs” as Old Man Fixico. It’s a tender scene as the two Native American actors (Gladstone was raised on Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation) end the scene with a familial embrace.
In 2014, Maltz arrived in the Lone Star State for an art residency in Marfa which changed her life. After a couple of short films and a feature documentary, the artist and filmmaker returned to Texas to shoot the finale of “The Unknown Country” which features Tana making new friends including Isaac played by Raymond Lee (“Top Gun: Maverick”).
The Dallas segment is a refreshing conclusion to Maltz’s feature as Tana lets loose after meeting Isaac and friends at a craft beer brewery. Up until this point, her excursion has been filled with reunions, enduring acquaintances, and a few frightening moments (like the two drunk men who hit up on her which could have easily escalated into a nightmare).
Just before arriving in the Metroplex, Tana sits in a dive bar where a host on a conservative news channel can be heard blasting the same old racist, sexist, misogynist rhetoric that intensified after the 2016 election while the score by Alexis & Sam (Alexis Marsh, Sam Jones) pulsates, getting louder with every word until it rises to a crescendo just as the right-wing host announces, “I’ve never seen this level of doom.”
During the film, Tana occasionally pulls out a Polaroid of her grandmother when she was young posing in front of what looks like scenic West Texas. It’s a mystery that leads to the perfect culmination of Morrisa Maltz’s narrative feature debut which is reminiscent of works by Chloé Zhao and Kelly Reichardt.
Finally, you can’t have a road trip without good music, and “The Unknown Country” features songs by Beach House, Dyan, and Slowdive with new songs written and contributed to the film by frontman Neil Halstead. The perfect playlist for one of the best films of the year. You’ll be glad you came along for the ride.
Now showing at the Angelika Film Center & Café (Dallas) and the Angelika Film Center & Café (Plano)