An early draft of this review was originally published on August 21, 2023,
at Give Me Some Light on Substack, months before it appeared here.
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Caution: Avoid the trailer for The Unknown Country. I’m so grateful I didn’t see it before I saw the movie. It’s basically a highlight reel of most of the movie’s best shots. And I can tell you from experience, those images are best discovered in their intended context.

As the ticket-scanner at SIFF’s Uptown Cinemas checks my ticket for the 4:45 screening of The Unknown Country, he says, “Do you realize that if you come right back for the evening showing, you’ll get to see writer-director Morissa Waltz, the lead actress Lily Gladstone, and the co-writer Vanara Taing for an in-person Q&A?”


“No,” I said. “No, I didn’t know.”

And then I added, “And I have plans later, alas. So I guess I’m missing out.”

But what I really wanted to say was, “And as I cannot come back later… thank you for spoiling my afternoon!

Dang. Dang dang dang dang. That was a five-dang bummer.

And yet I’m glad to report that my afternoon was not completely spoiled. The Unknown Country was not only worth seeing on its own, without the after-movie in-person experience, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to rate highly on my list of favorite films for 2023.

Tana learns from her uncle about years she’s missed on their family’s Lakota reservation home. [Image from the Music Box Films trailer.]

Don’t get me wrong: I feel the sting of missing out on that Q&A. I would have had so many questions. And I would have wanted to thank all three artists for giving me one of the most human and heartening experiences I’ve had at the movies all year.

Once in a while, a film comes along that shows you just how your lifetime of moviegoing has conditioned your imagination to anticipate only certain kinds of stories. The Unknown Country is one of those rare and nourishing experiences that stubbornly refuses to conform to any of those formulas, quietly expanding what we understand to be possible. In a sense, I did not need to “suspend my disbelief” during this film because there was no disbelief to suspend. This world, these characters, these scenarios — don’t tell me they aren’t happening.

If I provide any sketch of this movie’s narrative, I might give you the wrong impression. Yes, things happen in The Unknown Country — it’s an episodic road movie in which the traveler reveals a little more about herself at each of the major stops, in each of her encounters, even as she leaves some key questions unanswered. Tana comes from an Oglala Lakota family, but she hasn’t been a part of their South Dakota reservation roots or their family traditions for eight years, and it’s obvious to us right away that the journey back into that context for the wedding of her cousin, Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, is complicated for psychological and emotional reasons we may guess at, but the movie doesn’t fill in those blanks for us. There, she will receive a gift that serves as a sort of compass for the next stretch of her journey, which takes her south through Texas. She is clearly grieving some kind of loss. While most film critics are spelling out the details of that loss in their reviews, I’d argue it’s better to receive those details in Tana’s own time.

The radiant Lily Gladstone, star of Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, is great in two feature films this year. [Image from the Music Box Films trailer.]

But you might enjoy the movie more if you know that there is no shocking twist, no big-scene revelation. We’re not being set up.

This movie isn’t really about a sequence of events so much as it is about spending time on the road with a quietly beautiful and solitary young woman whose heart is warm but broken. Tana has invested herself for years in support of someone else, and now she is moving through a difficult and emotional season of transition.

It’s also about the similarly complicated supporting characters Tana meets along the way, each one of whom is interesting enough to be the focus of a separate film. Director Morrisa Waltz gives generous attention to — and thus, I would go so far as to argue, loves — each one of them with her camera. We’re given tangential character sketches for several of these singular personalities, each one soon to vanish in Tana’s rearview mirror. Like the individuals we met along the road in Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-winning Nomadland, these characters seem surprisingly human in their idiosyncrasy and complexity. That’s because many of them — Lainey, her fiancé Devin, their daughter Jasmine, and others including a waitress, a service-station attendant, a motel owner, and a dance-hall regular named Flo — are non-professional actors playing themselves and telling us their true stories. (One is honored with an “In Memoriam” frame during the closing credits.)

At a dance hall, Tana meets Flo, a nonagenarian who just has to keep on dancing. [Image from the Music Box Films trailer.]

Lily Gladstone is magnetic at Tana, compelling our attention by drawing us in to her watchful and meditative nature and inspiring questions about her history and hardships. I won’t be surprised if, at the end of the year, when she’s likely to become a household name on a wave of Oscar buzz for Martin Scorsese’s violent epic Killers of the Flower Moon, I’m encouraging everyone to catch her performance in this movie as well for a greater exhibition of her strengths. We’ll see.

Earlier, I said that The Unknown Country doesn’t follow any familiar templates. But are there other films I would shelve on the same shelf in a video store due to some kind of cinematically similar spirit? There’s a hint of the aforementioned Nomadland here, and there’s a vibe that reminds me of Terrence Malick contemplative style—and I had already written that into my notes before I saw the trailer that announces both of those connections. But it’s not nearly as epic in scope as any of those films, and there’s nothing calibrated for awards-season “wow” factors (which is just fine with me).

The movie that comes to mind most? Well, it’s more a performance than a movie, really: As Tana, Gladstone kept reminding me of Ashley Judd as Ruby in Victor Nunez’s radiant Ruby in Paradise, the sorely underappreciated 1993 Sundance Grand Jury prize-winner. Both films have a warm-hearted authenticity that make me think Tana and Ruby might live in the same world and meet somewhere along the way.

Magic hour on the icy roads of South Dakota. [Image from the Music Box Films trailer.]

I remember Ruby in Paradise for how it slowed me down to a point that I felt I had really come to know not only people but places, and that I could leave the theater and go find them — or find characters and worlds much like them. And it seemed a pleasing prospect.

I suspect I will remember The Unknown Country for similar reasons. It kindles my curiosity about people I encounter only briefly in seemingly incidental stops along the way. It makes every encounter along the road seem like an opportunity to “love my neighbor,” establish a new friendship, learn a new story. Such encounters can enrich the traveler with a stronger understanding of the world they’re a part of, with a deeper knowledge of history, with gifts that will alter the journey ahead, and, sometimes, with surprising moments of self-discovery.