The festering marriage between Richard Crenna and Gena Rowlands in Larry McMurtry's contemporary Western, "Montana" (at 5 p.m. and again at 7 p.m. on TNT cable) is bound to strike a response in aging lovers who have been around each other too long.
What makes this adult Western vigorous and refreshing is the crusty performances of Crenna and Rowlands as embattled cowpunchers. She wants to preserve their land and he wants to sell out. The kids take sides, too. Their ne'er-do-well son (Justin Deas) sides with Dad and the daughter (Lea Thompson) with Mom.
The wide open Montana valleys and domes of sky, the roping, branding and honky-tonk brawls, match a magnificent setting with the niggardly life of cattle ranching that is threatened on every side by strip mining and coal developers.
But plot here is not important. Sometimes you have to give a story patience, even if it doesn't seem to be moving anywhere, because you sense a payoff in relationships that meander like real life. That's what happens in "Montana."
Rowlands' fierce portrayal of a woman struggling to hold on is another of her burnished performances. The funny thing about Rowlands is that however grimy she looks in her wool shirts and dusty jeans, a part of you still envisions her in fur coats (maybe it's all those John Cassavetes films). As good as she is, though, Crenna is memorable. His burned-out rancher and hell-raiser is both a comical and sensitive characterization and arguably the best work he's done in years.
Their jolting fight in a bunkhouse (where Crenna has moved to lick his wounds) is startling. It's not fun to see a husband and wife hit each other, but director William A. Graham perfectly catches writer McMurtry's unvarnished emotion. (McMurtry reportedly patterned the characters after his own parents.)
In fact, violence in the story, although not the domestic kind, has been subtly brewing all along. When it explodes in the movie's final moments in a bar, it is really the inevitable and perfect ending.