The Unknown Country is a noisy film. A small, internal road drama steeped in cinema verité, it mixes score with the noise of the real world — overlapping voices, clinking dishes, the radio that refuses to shut up. Radio has long been used as set dressing for film, but the easiest way to describe the heart of The Unknown Country is to describe its place in a growing trend among millennial filmmakers — using radio as a stand-in for “doom-scrolling.”
It’s a film born out of director Morrisa Maltz’s (Ingrid) attempt to make sense of America’s middle country following the election of Donald Trump with the passive noise of radio, always on even when you turn it off, lopsidedly focused on boosting right-wing doomerism, an invention intended for public utility now monopolized. It’s the proto-internet. And when Lily Gladstone’s (Certain Women, Killers of the Flower Moon) Tana drives across the American West, she can’t help but keep scrolling.
Unknown Country follows Tana after the loss of a grandmother she’d dedicated years of her life to taking care of. Wandering aimlessly and afraid to remain in their house, she accepts an invitation to her cousin’s wedding. Traveling from the Minneapolis area to South Dakota and onward, Tana encounters various strangers and family members along the way, the film interrupting the story to give several of them documentary-style vignettes, telling us their life story and disclosing their biggest emotional battle. Structurally, there’s not much more to the film than that, but like other road trip films of similar shape, such as Nomadland (2020) and The Straight Story (1999), the depth is drawn from this simple structure.
On a technical level, the picture occasionally struggles with low-light photography, blowing out the iso grain in the digital shadows, but these shots wouldn’t even take a whole hand to count. Overall, the images are clear and beautiful, occasionally stretching to accomplish slick transitions or gorgeous, Malik-esque camera moves. With both the image and sound of the film, realism is the priority. At first, the sound can be taken as off-putting, the dialogue sounding un-cinematic in its recording, but it settles into a hyper-real feeling. These people don’t sound like characters in a film, they sound like real people in the room. The tinkling of keys and the clanging of a gas pump, these sounds are allowed to feel distracting. Walking up to but never arriving at Mumblecore, the sound of Unknown Country is made for either a theater with a large center channel, or a good pair of headphones with the future home release.
It’s an anxious film, giving voice to the malaise of discontent stirring around our great melting pot. The generational trauma of an Indigenous woman traveling solo through lands where she should feel secure, and instead must dodge drunk, white men. The struggle of lower-class families to make ends meet and find acceptance in the community while doing so. Political divides over COVID, Trump, imperialism, racism, and economics hang over the film, all while Tana quietly battles grief, which she does very well. The film is hung on Gladstone’s performance and it does so with apparent ease. This is a quiet film she elevates and it will receive no awards attention, but seeing her performance leaves no doubt in this author’s mind that she is the favorite for whatever Oscar category Apple and Paramount decide to run her in for Killers of the Flower Moon later this year. Also standing out are Devin Shangreaux as her cousin’s husband-to-be, Raymond Lee (Top Gun: Maverick; Quantum Leap) as Isaac, a charming young man Tara encounters, and Pam Richter, whose vignette as Pam is the first and most moving in the film, and to whom the film is posthumously dedicated.
Reveling in the humor of the every-day and giving voice to a specifically modern restlessness, The Unknown Country is a human exploration of “fly-over” country. A must-see for awards nerds and cinephiles alike.
In select theaters July 28th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Music Box Films The Unknown Country webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.