The sign above the highway-located Conoco gas station says it plainly: WELCOME TO MID-AMERICA.
Writer-director Morrisa Maltz’s eloquent debut feature, “The Unknown Country,” follows a woman, Tana, on a road trip she’s mapping out as she goes, from Minnesota to South Dakota. There, in and around the reservation where her people live or used to, Tana reconnects after many years with various Oglala Lakota cousins and other relatives.
Tana’s invited to one cousin’s wedding, and much of the film centers on that milestone, the before and after of it, as experienced by a woman who has been away most of her life. Tana eventually heads south from there, down to Big Bend National Park, where her late grandmother — Tana carries a tiny black-and-white snapshot of her, labeled “Texas 1940″ — spent some time, though no one seems to know much about it. That photo becomes Tana’s compass to points unknown. And with Lily Gladstone playing her, Maltz’s small but beautiful narrative accumulates a wealth of honest, unforced emotion and reflection.
Gladstone, who gets story credit (along with three others), already has made a huge impact in a separate, massively budgeted film coming out in October: Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” a hit at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. She’s wonderful, too, in Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women,” and has one of those faces born for the camera, and not only because she has a way of being, not acting. Tana is a reactive element in “The Unknown Country”; she’s often seen, wordlessly, thinking back on her caregiving responsibilities with her grandmother, or simply ruminating over a cup of coffee in a roadside diner. But when she speaks, quietly, from the heart, we listen.
One of the great strokes of luck, and of Maltz’s postproduction assembly, involves all the voices we hear in addition to Tana’s. Maltz shot “The Unknown Country” between 2017 and 2020, using nonactors to portray variations on themselves. In voice-over, we hear their stories, of growing up in South Dakota, working as a server or a motel proprietor. The blend of professional and nonprofessional performers resembles Chloe Zhao’s approach in “The Rider” and “Nomadland,” films similarly curious about and devoted to parts of America ordinarily left off-screen.
There’s a dreamy and poetic side to the visual texture in “The Unknown Country,” as photographed, often gorgeously, by Andrew Hajek. The Badlands, the snakelike highways, the rippling sunsets step right up and strike their poses, but unselfconsciously. We intimate a lot about Tana’s life and circumstance from little details, such as the way she tenses up each time a pair of vaguely or overtly predatory male eyes looks her way along her route. Where Tana is going is both stated and unstated. “I’m floatin’,” Tana says when she’s asked what her plans involve. But inside she’s making a parallel set of discoveries, as does the cinematic reverie we’re watching.
‘THE UNKNOWN COUNTRY’
3.5 stars (out of 4)
No MPA rating (smoking)
Running time: 1:26
How to watch: Now in theaters