Greetings again from the darkness. Watching two of our most talented young actors do their thing within the framework of old-fashioned storytelling and a breathtaking geographic setting is just about as good as it gets in independent filmmaking. The pacing may be a bit slow for some viewers, but the joy here is in watching two actors own their characters and battle through the emotions that tore apart a family.
Co-writers and co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel previously collaborated on WHAT MAISIE KNEW (2012) and BEE SEASON (2005), and are joined this time by co-writer Mike Spreter. We certainly can debate the script’s handling of specific moments, but Haley Lu Richardson (OPERATION FINALE, 2018, the underrated COLUMBUS, 2017, SPLIT, 2016, and THE BRONZE, 2015) and Owen Teague (best known for the two recent IT movies, and he’s also delivered in two recent films, TO LESLIE and THE COW) are the reason we buy in quickly and stay engaged to the breakthrough.
Cal (Mr. Teague) returns to the ranch where he grew up when he’s notified his father has had a stroke and is in a coma on life support. Cal readies the ranch for a bankruptcy sale and tends to the other business issues while Kenyan nurse Ace (Gilbert Ouwor) takes care of the father. Longtime housekeeper Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero, Winona from “Seinfeld”) helps when she can, but the ranch itself, including some chickens and an arthritic 25-year-old horse, Mr. T, aren’t much better off than Cal’s comatose dad. Cal is shocked when he sees that his estranged sister Erin (Ms. Richardson) has returned in order to say goodbye to their dad.
The film is at its best as Cal and Erin (I’m sure it’s a coincidence that the EAST OF EDEN siblings were named Cal and Aron) strain to avoid the discussion of what caused the split. It takes a while for us to get the details, but the scene is devastating for both characters, and the actors pull it off beautifully. A single night, seven years ago, blew up a family and led to broken trust and pent-up anger and animosity in Erin, and near debilitating guilt and sadness in Cal. Doing the right thing plays a recurring role here in regards to Erin’s high school article, Cal’s decision on Mr. T, and their dad’s job and actions.
Family relationships can be tainted and forever altered by a traumatic event, and rebuilding that trust requires raw pain and emotion … and even then, there are no guarantees. Additional supporting work is provided by Eugene Brave Rock and Asivak Koostachin, each of whom bring a touch of humor to their character (“sentimental horsey girl”) – or perhaps it just seems that way due to the intensity of Erin and Cal. There is a terrific scene where Cal and Erin ‘negotiate’ her spontaneous purchase of a pickup and trailer, and the meaning is hard to miss as Erin educates Cal on Dante’s circles of Hell in “Inferno”. Kudos to rising stars Haley Lu Richardson and Owen Teague for capturing a strained sibling dynamic and showing how trauma can have varying effects. Thanks also to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (HELL OR HIGH WATER) for the sprawling Montana landscape and mountain vistas. This is a “western” only in the sense that it takes place out west and in near isolation, with most folks only speaking when necessary. It is a kind of showdown between brother and sister, but the weapons are words and memories, not pistols.