Sweetgrass Poster

Film Comment

Part elegy and part update, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s documentary follows ranchers and their sea of sheep on a historic final run to summer pastures. Shot in long shots, the spirit-freeing vistas of Montana’s Beartooth Mountains reverberate with the echoes of decades of Westerns (and cigarette ads) even as the use of close miking offsets the grandeur of the landscape by eavesdropping on the ranchers’ mundane chatter and hollers.

Standing in for the customary thundering cattle of cinematic tradition, the plump sheep make for a comical sight, but the woolly hordes are a prime attraction, from the glimpses of their life cycle in the early scenes on the ranch to the flock’s differently marching drummers. The filmmakers also give a sense of the drive’s duration and the toll it takes on the men high in the saddle, who are heard complaining on their cell phones and are visibly the worse for wear.

A rugged old rancher and his younger companion are especially endearing in this encounter with American heritage (the sort that is abstractly mourned in doom-and-gloom documentaries recalling half-imagined pre-industrial utopias). And though they play up what to outsiders will come off as cute and amusing, in the endeavor to record these experiences, Barbash and Castaing-Taylor portray something indelible by capturing the rancher’s old-hand ways and his palpable bewilderment as he rides in a pick-up after the long days and nights on the range are over.

NICOLAS RAPOLD January-February 2010, Issue 81

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