The list of things you won’t get from “Sweetgrass” is almost as impressive as the film itself. No narration, though this is a documentary. No music, unless you count a few snatches of song (”Headin’ home, baby, headin’ home now”), most of them mumbled by an aging fellow on horseback. No way of hearing half the dialogue. No names given for most of the people we meet. No explanatory titles until the end, when we learn that the flock of sheep we have watched being driven over the Beartooth Mountains, in Montana, will be the last. (Economic pressures, one imagines.) And, best of all, no flinching from birth and death.
We already know that farmers don’t have a sniff of sentimentality, but it’s still bracing to see the sheep breeders in this movie drag a newborn by its hind leg across the straw, or slip the skin of a dead lamb, like a sock, over the torso of an orphaned one, in the hope that the bereaved mother will accept it. As for the man who takes a leak in front of a sheep’s fresh corpse, ripped open by a bear, even the Duke, in his “Red River” days, might have scratched his chin in approval. The landscape may be majestic, but the deeds that it cradles teem with complaint and fatigue: we find one shepherd on his cell phone, high on a hilltop, who says of the job, “This is bullshit, Mom,” adding, “I’d rather enjoy these mountains than hate ‘em.” The filmmakers, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, compiled their footage over three years, and they are right to demand a commensurate patience from the audience: they hold the camera on a ruminating beast, or a noisy shearing, dare you to get bored, wait for you to grow hypnotized, and then, just as you enter a sort of trance, abruptly cut. Only thus, perhaps, can we begin to glimpse the rhythm that has, for more than a century, governed these hard, skillful, good-humored American lives, and which itself has been cut short.