Modern audiences will become impatient with the quietness and meditative pace, and the writing is probably a little too schematic in certain ways. The familial dysfunction at the heart of the story as well as certain images and plot elements evoke 1960s rural melodramas like “Hud” and “The Last Picture Show,” which were powerful but wore metaphors on their denim shirt-sleeves and would likely be written off as “old-fashioned” today. But the expansive widescreen images of Montana landscapes and the impeccable lead and supporting performances carry the picture, and it’s generally a pleasure to see a film done in this mode at a time when so few filmmakers dare attempt it.
Owen Teague (of “Bloodline” and “The Stand”) stars as Cal, a young man who returns to his family home to take charge of the estate of his dying father, who’s been in a coma following a stroke. He’s soon joined by his half-sister Erin (Haley Lu Richardson of “Ravenswood”), who’s been estranged from the family for years following her rebellion against their father. Without giving too much away, suffice to say that the father’s betrayals are in tune with a tradition that snakes through film noir and revisionist Westerns and plugs into the tradition of ancient Greek tragedy: the violence and sorrow that separated Erin from the family is directly related to the father’s betrayal of legal, ethical, and moral codes, and all of this is folded into a more skeptical view of American history than is taught in most public schools.
There’s a long, thoughtful sequence in which the siblings stare at a gaping and entirely pointless hole in the earth that their father’s legal and business advice helped a mining corporation dig. Erin then schools her brother on the circles of Hell described in Dante’s Inferno and relates them back to the history of their family and the state that’s superficially and evasively defined to schoolchildren mainly through praise for its “big skies.”
But the filmmakers take care not to let the situations become too abstract, always relating them back to the siblings and their family homestead, as well as the economics of the surrounding community—factors that also affect their housekeeper Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero); their father’s nurse, a Kenyan immigrant nicknamed Ace (Gilbert Owuor); and their father’s increasingly decrepit horse, which Cal has decided to put to sleep, but that Erin impulsively decides to relocate to her new home in upstate New York. (Erin’s fixation on saving the horse is a redemptive, history-rewriting move that relates directly to her own trauma at the hands of the father.)