The Unknown Country (2023)

The Unknown Country (2023)

A captivating Lily Gladstone anchors this meditative docu-fiction chronicling a road trip through the American heartland

The Very Best

8.1

Movie

United States of America
English
Drama
2023
FEMALE DIRECTOR, MORRISA MALTZ
Devin Shangreaux, Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, Lily Gladstone
85 min

TLDR

With this and Killers of the Flower Moon, 2023 is, without a doubt, Lily Gladstone’s year.

What it's about

A blend of documentary and fiction elements following a grieving young woman (Lily Gladstone) as she embarks on an introspective road trip through the heart of America and forges profound connections with family, strangers, and the places she travels through.

The take

It’s hard not to watch The Unknown Country and think of Nomadland: along with similarities in their Terrence Malick-inspired visuals, both films follow lone women seeking catharsis on the road as they grieve profound losses. But Morrisa Maltz’s debut feature is a decidedly lower-key, more spiritual affair — and is all the better for it.

The film is light on plot exposition, but it’s clear from her soft melancholy that Tana (Lily Gladstone) has set off on this road trip following a personal loss, a meandering journey that takes her from freezing Minnesota to Oglala Lakota reservations in South Dakota and down through Texas. Along the way, she reunites with loved ones and crosses paths with total strangers, all of whom are played by charismatic non-professional actors whose real life stories earn as much of the spotlight as Tana’s impressionistically shot journey. These moments of documentary, Gladstone’s naturalistic performance, Andrew Hajek’s contemplative images of lush American landscapes, and the film’s aversion to outright drama enrich the fictional elements by grounding them in earthy reality. There aren’t many more emotionally rewarding ways to spend 80-ish minutes than watching this poignant meditation on the tangled richness of human lives and the land we live on.

What stands out

The Unknown Country’s loose approach to narrative might have fallen apart were it not for Lily Gladstone’s anchoring performance, which balances blending into the film’s real-life textures with just the right amount of screen command to pull us through the film’s soul-searching contemplations. In her hands, the movie’s lack of plot never feels like a vacancy waiting to be filled, but like a clearing of space for her to flex the subtly moving powers of her naturalistic acting.

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