In the deft genre rethink “Montana Story,” the American flag doesn’t just flutter and wave, it also sends a warning. It looks so unassuming. Clean and neat, without frayed edges or faded colors, it flies from a tall pole planted in front of a handsome two-story home. There, on 200 acres in southwestern Montana, in a glorious area girdled by mountains known as Paradise Valley, nature beckons and soothes. It looks like heaven; it takes a while to see the rot.
The directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel don’t linger on the flag. Instead, they gently nose you into a classic western milieu while simultaneously pulling you into a simmering family melodrama about two adult children grappling with each other and their terminally ill father. He’s the one who bought the family ranch years earlier and — with plenty of help, pretty horses and unethically lined pockets — took up the quintessential American role of the cowboy. That archetype is critical to both his legacy and the movie’s larger ambitions, which draw a line between one man’s patrimony and the country’s fraught bequest.
It’s nearing winter when the youngest, Cal (Owen Teague), rolls up to the ranch in his truck. Lanky and in his early 20s, he has the loose limbs of a man who hasn’t settled into his body and a name that evokes “East of Eden,” another domestic drama. Here, the family’s history emerges with discretion, with visual cues and tense talks involving red-alert words like bankruptcy. Cal’s father, Wade (Rob Story), has had a stroke. Comatose and hooked to a machine that keeps his heart pumping, he now languishes in the study, cared for by a nurse, Ace (Gilbert Owuor), and a housekeeper, Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero).
Despite the bad news and Cal’s furrowed brow over the unpaid bills, there is an inviting, relaxed quality to this narrative table setting, to the introductions, the carefully arranged genre elements and the casual way the parts begin sliding into place. Part of what’s appealing, even lulling, is that you think you’ve seen this before, if not necessarily in person. With its vistas, small town, lonely ranch and dusty roads, the Montana here looks pretty much like what you’d expect. It’s beautiful, isolated, rugged; it’s also a world that in image and in ethos was partly invented by Hollywood (and currently available to rent through Airbnb).