I adore Lily Gladstone, as captivating a performer as has emerged anywhere in the last decade. Sometimes I re-watch Certain Women just to see if that performance happened, if that impression of stoic heartbreak is real, and yes, it DID, and yes, it IS. I am rooting for her as a Native woman working in an industry that is slightly more productive for Native women now than it was even ten years ago (things are not perfect, but there are more opportunities in mainstream cinema today), and I am excited that she is working with Martin Scorsese in Killers of the Flower Moon, which is due out later this year. I can’t wait to see how quietly devastating she is in that movie.
But first, there is The Unknown Country, an independent film that just made its debut at SXSW. Indiewire has shared an exclusive clip, showing Tana (Gladstone), driving through the neon nightscape of Dallas, Texas while talk radio drones on in voiceover. She’s on a road trip that takes her from the Midwest to the Texas-Mexico border in the days after Trump won the presidency in 2016. The world has been so increasingly bonkers ever since then, it’s easy to forget how strange and disorienting late 2016 was, but The Unknown Country will revisit that time as Tana treks through the heart of “Trump country”. The film is the feature debut of Morrissa Maltz.
What I love so much about Gladstone as a performer is her eyes. It’s all there. She doesn’t need to deliver dialogue to convey feelings and meaning, she can just gaze into empty space while smoking a cigarette and you can feel how worn out Tana is. She can stare into the darkness while driving and you can read her almost grim determination to push through to her destination. Every time I watch (or re-watch) a Lily Gladstone performance, I’m riveted by her gaze. She knows how to look. Acting is often described as listening, and it is, but cinematic acting is also about looking. Great actors know how to look through the camera.
Heath Ledger is so memorable because he had that gaze that cut across the screen-audience distance and nailed you to your seat while he was on camera. (He was also GREAT at looking at love interests, which is why we remember so many of his romantic performances, even when they were in bad movies.) It’s the same reason Audrey Hepburn captivated audiences in Roman Holiday, those big eyes looked out from the screen with a palpable yearning for adventure, and the world fell at her feet. James Dean had that soulful gaze, Samuel L. Jackson’s intense stare—great actors are almost always great lookers. Lily Gladstone has a great actor’s gaze. I hope she uses it do absolutely dominate cinema in the 2020s.