Expect to be taken aback the first time The Unknown Country, a work of ostensible fiction newly released on DVD and Blu-ray ($22, Music Box), abruptly shifts to a documentary. We’ve just watched an actor, Lily Gladstone, stop at a Deadwood diner after a long night of driving. The camera is focused on her, not the loquacious server at the greasy spoon, who in between dispensing coffee and menus, offers (threatens?) to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” to one of her tables.
Cut to the server’s home, where, in her own voiceover, she tells us about the cats she’s adopted — and we see them, so in control of the domicile they may as well collect rent. She then relates the story of a generous customer at the diner who, in what he knew were the last months of his life, supplied her with cash tips of up to $500 every meal.
And just like that, we’re back to following Gladstone again, in what we will be a road movie from her home in Minnesota through her roots in South Dakotan tribal country on through her final destination in Texas. But the journey is occasionally interrupted for these mini-documentaries, these character sketches of memorable strangers we’ll never meet again, appearing like narrative rest stops along a highway: a motel owner from an agrarian family who went against the grain (sorry) by pursuing an engineering degree and opening his beloved business; a convenience-store operator who dreamed of his ideal partner for 30 years until the person finally walked through the doors of his shop, sparking love at first sight; the owner of a yellowing Dallas dancehall who is keeping the struggling venue afloat largely because of one committed elderly dancer.
The Unknown Country is certainly not the first docufiction hybrid. Films like Nomadland, with which The Unknown Country shares some of its searching and lyrical DNA, mingle actors and real people. But first-time feature-film writer-director Morrisa Maltz’s approach feels different because the break between narrative and reportage is often so stark. To paraphrase the aforementioned waitress at the diner, everyone has a story. And Maltz pauses the progress of her own storytelling to capture fascinating lives in fleeting snapshots. These anthropological sketches are the most vital element of The Unknown Country, an acknowledgment that culture is preserved through the collection of stories.
As for Gladstone’s seemingly rootless character, Tana, she’s a stand-in of sorts for Maltz herself, who in a panel discussion in the Blu-ray’s bonus features says she developed the movie’s gossamer plot on the fly. She and her cast “learn[ed] what it was as we went along,” relying on improvisational dialogue and favoring “collective authorship” over the rigidity of a single voice.
This was the right approach ethically — as a white woman making a movie that’s set largely among indigenous Americans, she doesn’t pretend to speak for them — as well as structurally. Whether Tana is attending the modest wedding of now-distant relatives in South Dakota (Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, Devin Shangreaux and their daughter Jasmine Shangreaux, all playing themselves), or finding a night of communion with a South Korean immigrant in Dallas (Raymond Lee), a sense of unscripted authenticity pervades.
As Tana motors her aged sedan through the spartan byways of Middle America, snatches of religious and political talk radio flit across the soundtrack like so much white noise, against the anonymous backdrop of interchangeable gas stations and food marts and motels. Though we follow Gladstone through the entire film, the irony is that her character is less defined than the real-life people Maltz and her crew met along the way.
Gladstone will likely receive awards attention this year for her breakthrough performance as the stoic Mollie Burkhart in The Killers of the Flower Moon, and her Tana feels cut from a similarly reserved cloth. We learn, finally, why she’s headed to Texas, but not what she’s running from, and when asked personal questions, she demurs. Perhaps she doesn’t know the answers herself. For a movie that thrives on curiosity, she’s just another character with a story waiting to be told.