It’s hard not to watch The Unknown Country and think of Nomadland: along with similarities in their Terrence Malick-inspired visuals, both films follow lone women seeking catharsis on the road as they grieve profound losses. But Morrisa Maltz’s debut feature is a decidedly lower-key, more spiritual affair — and is all the better for it.
The film is light on plot exposition, but it’s clear from her soft melancholy that Tana (Lily Gladstone) has set off on this road trip following a personal loss, a meandering journey that takes her from freezing Minnesota to Oglala Lakota reservations in South Dakota and down through Texas. Along the way, she reunites with loved ones and crosses paths with total strangers, all of whom are played by charismatic non-professional actors whose real life stories earn as much of the spotlight as Tana’s impressionistically shot journey. These moments of documentary, Gladstone’s naturalistic performance, Andrew Hajek’s contemplative images of lush American landscapes, and the film’s aversion to outright drama enrich the fictional elements by grounding them in earthy reality. There aren’t many more emotionally rewarding ways to spend 80-ish minutes than watching this poignant meditation on the tangled richness of human lives and the land we live on.