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The Unknown Country: Film Review

Though The Unknown Country is an understated feature, it feels like a hearty home-cooked meal prepared by Grandma. It’s comforting to watch, nostalgic, and worth the time investment.

When I learned of the upcoming release of Morrisa Maltz’s The Unknown Country, it immediately caught my eye. Not only does the film star the brilliant Lily Gladstone, cast in the highly anticipated upcoming western Killers of the Flower Moon, but the feature also explores elements of grief, family bonds, and self-discovery, all of which we can relate to. 

Following losing a loved one, Tana (Gladstone) travels from Minnesota to South Dakota after receiving an unexpected invitation to her cousin’s wedding. Once there, she reconnects with her Oglala Lakota family and discovers a mysterious picture of her grandmother which takes her on an adventure in pursuit of the location displayed in the photograph.

Though The Unknown Country is simplistic in its approach to storytelling, Maltz effectively reflects the emotion and themes explored throughout the feature. Each step of the way, the audience feels as though they are present with Tana on her journey across the country as she drives through the stunning snowy landscape, while the recent death of a family member rests heavily on her heart. 

Though grief is at the film’s core and Tana’s sorrow is reflected throughout the 85-minute runtime, the passing of her grandmother leads her to reconnect with some of her family members whom she hasn’t seen for years and embark on a search for inner peace.  

Maltz captures Tana’s devastation through camera close-ups that create a real sense of intimacy with the character that hooks you as a viewer. We can feel her heartache during scenes without dialogue, which showcases Gladstone’s undeniable talent as a rising Hollywood star as she gives a captivating performance. 

loud and clear reviews The Unknown Country film 2023 movie
The Unknown Country (Music Box Films)

In addition, moments accompanied by peaceful music while scenery appears through Tana’s windows as she drives through the Midwest make viewers feel like a passenger in the vehicle. It’s intriguing and visually pleasing as the audience envisions where the open road may take her next.

The Unknown Country perfectly encapsulates a small-town America vibe, as viewers are introduced to quaint towns that ooze with welcoming locals and charm. As someone who moved across the USA in 2019, the locations in the film transported me back to the memories of my road trip, and for those who have traveled vast distances by car, the journey is relatable. 

From gas station rest areas to off-the-freeway motels designed for folks who have driven for hours while traveling to their destination. Each guest is keen to rest for the night before getting up early the next day to embrace their cross-country adventure again. Furthermore, The Unknown Country highlights how intimidating traveling solo can be, especially for a woman. 

Although those who have yet to visit such areas may not have a sense of the Midwestern or Texan way of life, The Unknown Country does an impeccable job of portraying the atmosphere in the states traveled to on the big screen.

One unique aspect of the film is the combination of acted moments with real-life stories that regular people share about their lives. At times, The Unknown Country feels like a documentary film, which makes the realness of the feature more effective. 

A waitress at a café reflects on her life as a service industry professional, voicing her kind approach to each customer who walks through the door, as we never know what someone may be going through. A gas station worker shares a moving story about visualizing his future lover when he was a teenager and meeting him twenty years later. 

Not only are the accounts shared from people’s life experiences in The Unknown Country touching, but they make you consider how short life is and the importance of cherishing each moment that brings us joy. Even a brief interaction with a stranger might put a smile on our faces after a bad day and shouldn’t be taken for granted. 

Overall, The Unknown Country is certainly not the most thrilling film of 2023. Still, its emotional depth, heartwarming moments, and empowering conclusion display how the death of a loved one can not only bring a family closer together but may also make us reassess our place in the world.

The Unknown Country is now playing in select US theaters.

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