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'Montana Story' is a story of family betrayal we've seen before, and a rather predictable one

Owen Teague in "Montana Story".
Bleecker Street
Owen Teague in "Montana Story".

It’s amazing how we never get tired of stories about family secrets. In Montana Story, hints of unspoken events ooze from every crevice of the movie. It’s the usual drill: a father/patriarch lays dying and the adult children assemble. Long buried resentments, recriminations, and anguished confessions dominate — as for nearly two hours characters bleed out the betrayals of the past.

Cal (Owen Teague) comes back to the family ranch in Montana. His father lies in a coma on a ventilator. Cal and his family are white; the Black man (Gilbert Owuor), who cares for the father shortens his complex African name to Ace for the sake of his white employers. A fallen tree rests across a smashed a fence, so you know things are not good.

The ranch has to be sold because the family has run out of money. In another sign of things going wrong, a bald eagle drops a load on Cal’s old Lexus. So it’s not just this family and this ranch in trouble — all of America is somehow reneging on its promise.

A big American flag waves over the failing ranch, and like the chickens in the yard or Ace in the bedroom, the movie never shows how it’s maintained, even to this minimal level. The flag is in good shape; Ace is a first-rate nurse with all the equipment he needs to care for Pop; the chickens look healthy, and they lay eggs for Cal and then his sister Erin to gather for breakfast. How can it last? It must be a flimsy facade.

Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), who shows up from the East ready for battle with her brother, adds another side to the story, and she’s certain Cal’s lying.

You know something’s brewing – those secrets from the deep, dark past – and that a few minutes from the end of the picture it will all erupt. No surprises here.

Writers and directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel have been a team since 1994 with their first film, called Suture, a title meant to evoke the complex and very trendy ideas of the French theorist/psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. It was certainly bold of McGehee and Siegel to make that film, so it’s disappointing that Montana Story is predictable and listless.

You can see the film trying to make something from the usual stuff of American movie westerns, but it’s all old hat. There’s the problem of who owns the land and what to do with it — now that it’s chickens roaming around instead of mighty herds of cattle. With Cal and Erin, the movie serves up a family feud, also common to westerns, and the film brings in the subject of race.

The great Hollywood westerns have handled these materials for going on a hundred years, and many of those pictures do it with imagination and excitement. Montana Story drags them along with a limp. This version of the family saga was worn out long before this film came along, and the big secret is obvious from the giddyup.

The Black nurse, a Cherokee man (Eugene Brave Rock) and a Hispanic housekeeper (Kimberly Guerrero) have modestly interesting moments, but they’re incidental to the story. And worse, the characters are also exceptionally wise, more like magical statues than anything resembling human beings with texture.

But the film does have scenery. The vast flatlands of the valley, the mountains in the background in all directions, and the immense sky are utterly magnificent. This is an essential western movie landscape, and it holds so much promise that filmmakers have been reaching for it almost as long as the movies have existed. It’s there just waiting for stories to understand it and the rich complexities of the people who live on it. Montana Story comes nowhere near reaching those possibilities. It settles for an old horse.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.