I’m always drawn to see stories about people revisiting their past, especially after a significant family loss. As I have lost both my mother and my grandma in a span of four years, the story of Tana (Lily Gladstone) who’s grieving for the passing of her grandmother resonates with me. An invitation to reunite with her estranged Oglala Lakota family prompts her to take an unexpected road trip from Minnesota, where she has been caring for her grandma, down south toward the Texas-Mexico border.
This film is a quiet, slo-burn film where Tana mostly internalizes everything. The filmmaking style of Morrisa Maltz blends narrative and documentary, with people being interviewed like talking heads, as the film follows Tana driving in her white Cadillac cross country. Along the way, she meets various people both familiar and unknown, there’s even a lovely wedding celebration involving one of her cousins (Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux). The visuals by cinematographer Andrew Hajek feel quite poetic, even with his affinity for lens flare.
It took me a while to figure out just what the film is trying to say, I realize there’s more to Tana’s journey than an ordinary road trip. There’s a subtle commentary on the current political climate through her car radio broadcast, things like police brutality, global warming, and Trump’s America, though her actual thoughts about such topics aren’t clear. At times it reminds me a bit of Nomadland, perhaps it’s deliberate, though I’m afraid this one feels more aimless. There’s basically no plot, but it’s not exactly a strong character study about Tana either. I wish I knew a bit more about who she is as a person and her relationship with her late grandma.
In the third half of the film, there’s a flirtation between Tana and a guy of Asian descent (Raymond Lee) she met during a random encounter with a group he’s with. As much as I enjoy the brief potential romance, it doesn’t really give much insight into Tana’s character. She remains an enigma who always keeps viewers, well me anyway, at arm’s length. It’s ironic that she too is as ‘unknowable’ as the country she was born in that seems foreign to her.
I was really drawn by Lily Gladstone however, whom I first saw in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. She’s got such a graceful, magnetic presence about her. I can’t wait for the world to finally discover her as she’s been cast in a leading role in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon with Leo DiCaprio. I think the film has the potential of being quite profound, but in the end, I struggle to connect with Tana and her journey. Still, I’m glad I saw this and it’s well worth my time just to see Gladstone’s performance.
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7 thoughts on “TCFF 2022 Review: The Unknown Country (2022)”
I like to see this as I do like Lily Gladstone as I’ve only seen her in 2 films by Kelly Reichardt so far. I’m looking forward to what she’s doing in Martin Scorsese’s next film.
I’ve only seen her in Certain Women and loved her there as well. I can’t wait to see her in Killers of the Flower Moon!
She has a small part in First Cow but is good in her brief time.
Gladstone was great in an episode of Reservation Dogs. Good to know she’s in other films.
That’s a series I still need to catch up on, even more intrigued now to see her appearance there. Be on the lookout for her in Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon next year, Vince!
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