Lily Gladstone stars in this road movie of self-discovery in the heartland.

A woman drives alone at night, face lit red by stop lights, listening to talk radio as she navigates snowy roads. This is the viewer’s introduction to Tana, played by Lily Gladstone (Certain Women, First Cow), in The Unknown Country. This first narrative feature by director Morrisa Maltz, which premiered at SXSW this past week, incorporates documentary vignettes about personalities Maltz met on past road trips into a larger story about family and discovery.

The timeline wanders as Tana drives through states in the American Midwest all the way down to Texas. As she makes stops along the way, we are introduced to the waitress who serves her in a Deadwood diner, a motel owner, a gas station attendant, and a dancehall regular. Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, who serves as a producer on the film, also plays a version of herself as a cousin to Tana, encouraging her to visit family on the Pine Ridge reservation. These vignettes about real people are woven into Tana’s journey as she tries to learn more about the grandmother she recently lost.

After our Thursday night SXSW screening, Gladstone appeared with the director and editor for a Q&A. The actress spoke of her hesitancy as an Indigenous performer to participate in any work with a “poverty porn” angle (she alluded to a director whose work I reviewed last year). She called the character of Tana “a really good skeleton for somebody to walk into.”

There wasn’t a script to work from, but it’s clear to the viewer how comfortable the non-actors — who make up the majority of the onscreen talent — feel with Gladstone. I was especially impressed with the depiction of menace Tana faces as a woman traveling alone, from the bearded man at a gas station to a couple of drunk Nebraskans who try to pick her up, and how Gladstone shows Tana’s silent fear with a clenched fist or weary eyes tracking headlights in her rearview mirror.

The editing and audio work add to the meandering feel of The Unknown Country. Snippets from different talk radio stations Tana finds on her way are some of the only hints we get as to her current location. It plays like a collage, blending the real-life people into the fictional story being told about Tana. Despite the tendency towards glaring light, The Unknown Country includes some stunning cinematography. From the limited confines of Tana’s car to the vastness of snow-covered landscapes in South Dakota to the natural beauty of Big Bend, Maltz celebrates unique personalities.

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