“The Unknown Country”


Metacritic (6/10), Letterboxd (3/5), Imdb.com (6/10), TMDB.com (3/5)

In telling a story with surreal and/or other-worldly aspects, there’s a big difference between “mystical” and “mystifying,” and that’s where this second feature from writer-director Morissa Maltz misses the mark. This dreamlike road trip tale of a Native American woman (Lily Gladstone) recovering from the loss of her beloved grandmother follows her on a personal vision quest of sorts across the Midwest and Southern Great Plains. She leaves her home in Minneapolis and travels first to South Dakota to attend her cousin’s wedding and to reconnect with her family and culture, especially the impact of ancestors and spirit guides in everyday life. From there she drives to Texas to see if she can connect with the legacy of her grandmother in the state’s Big Bend region, a favored place of her late nana. In between, she encounters an array of individuals and events that strengthen (but don’t always explain) her bond to a heritage she seems to have left behind some time ago. At first glance, this narrative would seem to have the makings of an enlightening and inspiring journey of self-discovery, and that’s true to a certain extent. However, these themes are never fleshed out as fully as they could have been. While it’s understandable how such a story might have a certain intrinsic enigmatic quality about it, it’s so subdued as to essentially become cryptic, even puzzling. The narrative here is said to be based on the filmmaker’s own experiences, yet, regrettably, that may be the problem – the director is too close to the material to effectively convey what she’s trying to say to outsiders. A framework for the aforementioned themes would appear to be in place, but the handling of many sequences can be so vague that audiences may have difficulty assessing what the filmmaker is trying to convey, let alone even what’s transpiring. This is further hampered by a lack of the protagonist’s character development, which offers little in the way of back story and scant clarity on what she’s seeking to accomplish through this undertaking. Consequently, the film relies on an array of undefined reaction shots, combined with narrated anecdotes from other characters and a wealth of gorgeous landscape shots that beautifully depict the region’s wide open spaces but add little substance, suggesting that they may have been incorporated to pad an already-short 1:25:00 runtime. The overall style here is thus reminiscent of the movies of Terrence Malick and Chloé Zhao (particularly “Nomadland” (2020)), auteurs whose works are themselves often challenging to follow but are certainly a cut above what’s on offer here. Unfortunately, “The Unknown Country” represents a missed opportunity to provide valuable insight into the life of an individual and the ways of a culture that could have been uplifting for others faced with similar circumstances. Instead, though, it comes across more like a collection of disjointed images and underdeveloped story threads that had potential but that never materialized as effectively as they might have been.