There’s a moment so gentle and lovely in The Unknown Country: A young woman named Tana (Lily Gladstone) meets her great-uncle (Richard Ray Whitman) for the first time since she was a child. With a smile, she says hesitantly, “Do you remember me?” and he chuckles quietly and places his hand to her forehead, “I remember you…” She laughs with a sort of relief, like a woman who has, just for a moment on her journey, found another version of home.
The Unknown Country is a road movie that feels like a companion piece to Nomadland, both highlighting the gorgeous, vast open roads of the American Plains, as well as stories of regular Americans that Tana meets on the way. It’s an interesting mix of documentary and narrative, as director Morrisa Maltz intersperses mini-profiles of some of these characters–folks playing themselves, giving us a peek into their regular lives, like the diner waitress at the start of the story (the film is dedicated to her as she passed in 2020), or the grizzled campy gas station attendant, or the guy who was an engineer-turned-motel manager.
Central to the often wordless narrative is Tana’s road trip. When she drives from Minnesota to a cousin’s wedding in South Dakota, her Oglala Lakota family is tender and welcoming. It’s clear that she had been off the grid for awhile, and is dealing with grief–she quit her job several years earlier to become the home caretaker for her grandmother who recently passed. Tana’s trip is to reconnect with her relatives that she hasn’t seen since she was a child, but also to rediscover and connect with her late grandmother, trying to unravel the mystery behind an old photo of the elder as a young woman in Texas. Despite the warm embrace in South Dakota, Tana is drawn to continue her journey for her grandmother.
I had seen Lily Gladstone in Certain Women, and found her open stillness breathtaking. Watching her face, you never think that nothing is happening… from her gazing out at the landscape as she drives, to furrowing her brow in worry about a creeper guy at a gas station, to putting her hand on her grandmother’s suitcase of photos on the seat next to her. Her wordlessness is never a detriment, and in fact makes her all the more intriguing.
The endless snowy landscape of the Plains is the other visual focus of The Unknown Country that never becomes tiring. Kudos to the gorgeous cinematography by Andrew Hajek. Combined with the dreamy soundtrack that includes the shoegaze aural vistas of Slowdive and Neal Hastead, The Unknown Country makes you want to go on a long drive where you are alone, but not lonely, one hand on the wheel, and the other out the window to catch the currents of air as the world whooshes by.