Had creator and show runner Taylor Sheridan chosen another name for his wildly popular Paramount+ TV series “Yellowstone,” it could have just as easily been “Montana Story.” Like this film with that name, it includes a patriarch with a lot of baggage (emotional and otherwise), siblings with emotional scars, and years’ old unfinished business to tend to amid the backdrop of some of the most gorgeous natural scenery God ever created.
Not long after the opening credits, a vehicle passes underneath an entrance archway with the family name in cast iron: “Thorne.” It’s not dissimilar to the wooden “Dutton” sign shown regularly in “Yellowstone,” but this is where any comparisons to the two productions cease. The viewer is not entering a sprawling estate chock-full of intrigue and obscene riches, but one of desperation and resigned, nagging closure; a once-imagined great life desiccated by poor decisions and would-be grandeur.
The Wayward Son Returns
After learning that his father, Wade (Rob Story), is in a coma with mere days to live, civil engineer Cal (Owen Teague, “The Stand”; the bully in “It”) returns home from Wyoming where he lives with his cat, Oscar Wilde. Named after baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr., Cal also plays the mandolin, keeps his own counsel, and has resigned himself to the upcoming unpleasant chore of tidying up Wade’s meager estate, selling the family chicken farm, and taking care of a mountain of his father’s ever-mounting debt.
Upon arrival, Cal is warmly greeted by Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero), a Native American woman who could be Wade’s housekeeper or his girlfriend, or both. The women in Wade’s life don’t tend to fare well, including his daughter (and Cal’s older half sister) Erin (Haley Lu Richardson, “The Chaperone,” “The White Lotus”).
Disappearing into thin air seven years earlier, Erin now works as a chef at a New Age restaurant in upstate New York, and her arrival stuns Cal who had reluctantly given her up for dead. Their reunion is at best bittersweet with their sole remaining shared bond being their bitter disdain for Wade.
What to Do With Mr. T
The reunion appears to end almost immediately as Erin decides to bail but changes her mind once Cal tells her what he intends on doing with Mr. T, the 25-year-old family horse that was born the same year as Erin. Exactly what Cal wants to do with it, and Erin’s counterproposal are better left explained by the film, but their respective positions are polar opposites with little room left for compromise.
Watching all of this unfold with guarded fascination from not quite the sidelines is Ace (Gilbert Owuor), Wade’s Kenyan nurse, who regularly imparts pearls of wisdom while acting as a nonjudgmental metaphorical salve to the ever-present sibling friction.
The above covers most of what transpires in the first act and it is stupendous. Longtime writer and director partners Scott McGehee and David Siegel never dole out too much information too soon, and the narrative is rich with percolating subtext. With a résumé of just five features (“Suture,” “The Deep End,” “Bee Season,” “Uncertainty,” and “What Maisie Knew”) over the last three decades, McGehee and Siegel never do the same thing twice, yet all of their features include blood-related characters who rarely see eye to eye.
A Near-Fatal Second Act
The considerable momentum amassed up to this point is nearly lost when the filmmakers hit their own erected brick wall at the beginning of the second act. A scene that should have been dispatched in two minutes drags on for nearly 20, and it is only because of the undeniable chemistry between Richardson and Teague, and their investment in their respective roles, that the entire endeavor escapes a complete meltdown. It also helps that most of this portion of the story takes place outdoors, with the spectacular natural Montana skyline taking center stage.
It is when Erin begins delivering a symbol-heavy monologue, which includes references to Dante’s “Inferno,” at the mouth of a giant crater dubbed “Copperhead” that the film gets back on its feet and regains the steam it established so well in the opening act.
The Darkness Before the Dawn
This is where the filmmakers redeem themselves by waiting as long as possible before revealing Cal and Erin’s respective ghosts and the unconventional ways they are conquered, or perhaps not. For a movie rife with so much acrimony and regret, we never sense a loss of hope or get the idea that the siblings won’t be able to overcome and triumph over the negativity of their past. They redeem themselves and rescue a relationship that initially seemed unsalvageable.
Neither of the leads is present in the final scene, one that will likely give animal lovers cause to shed an emotional tear or two and leave every viewer with goose flesh and a soaring heart.
Directors: Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Stars: Haley Lu Richardson, Owen Teague, Gilbert Owuor, Kimberly Guerrero, Rob Story
Running Time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: May 27, 2022
Rating: 3.5 out of 5