When an up and coming actor is nominated for an Oscar, it’s almost inevitable that the rest of their filmography is looked into. If early reviews for Killers of the Flower Moon are any indication, a nomination is very likely in the cards for Lily Gladstone. If that happens, her two other performances from this year would get substantial viewing. As they should. We reviewed her brilliant performance in Fancy Dance earlier this year at Sundance. This week, the quiet and dream-like road movie The Unknown Country is released and if her other roles are any indication, it proves that Gladstone’s varied and layered performances are here to stay.
The 85 minute drama follows the journey of Tana (Gladstone), an indigenous woman from Minneapolis, as she drives past cheap motels and dingy diners. We learn early on that she initially ventured on the road to visit a cousin who is getting married. She’s tired and rundown but lights up while spending time with her cousin’s daughter. Gladstone brings a solemn sadness with her that is hard not read into as director Morrisa Maltz doesn’t give the audience answers right away.
To balance out Tana’s silence, Maltz has these moments with the service workers Tana interacts with on the road. These real-life blue collar people tell their stories for two to three minutes before moving back to the main narrative. It creates a lyrical, poetic effect. The cheery waitress talks about her customer service methods. The friendly gas station clerk talks with slight melancholy about his partner through a dream he had as a child. It’s a dreamy and deeply personal way of filmmaking that could become a signature for Maltz, who has a background in documentaries.
As Tana drives from the top to the bottom of the midwest, she shows us barren and snowy highways to dry desert terrain in Texas. The stark and peaceful images are a magnificent foil to Maltz’s way of storytelling, complementing Tana’s emotional journey with her physical one. It’s giving Paris, Texas meets Nomadland and yet feels all its own.
Lily Gladstone doesn’t push her performance here because she doesn’t need to. A lesser actor would try to compensate for the less-structured form of storytelling, but Gladstone embraces it. A quiet contemplative sadness follows her that is fascinating to watch. Seeing her interact with the world, one that offers her real kindness, is something I could watch forever, similar to those who say they could hear Morgan Freeman read the phonebook. While it’s not the star-making turn Killers of the Flower Moon promises to be, The Unknown Country solidifies Gladstone as a cinematic force. It’s a breathtaking movie that feeds the soul.
The Unknown Country is playing in select cities. Watch the trailer below.