From the first minutes of Sweetgrass — tagline “the last ride of the American cowboy” — you’ll realize you’re watching a “pure” documentary. There’s no narration and no score. Heck, there’s not even a credited director — just a “recordist” (Lucien Castaing-Taylor) and a producer (Ilisa Barbash).
Thus, aside from the editing of film footage, there’s no artifice interposed between the experiences captured on film and the viewers, making it as immersive as functionally possible.
The events being documented involve a large-scale sheep ranching operation headquartered in Big Timber, Montana. To give you an idea of what I mean by large-scale: When the ranchers move their livestock to the high country for summer grazing, the town shuts down and Main Street is transformed into a flowing sea of sheep.
Sweetgrass initially makes for a disorienting, almost hypnotic experience. We go for quite some time before hearing the sound of human speech. There’s an extended shot of a sheep simply standing there, chewing its cud, while the bell around its neck tolls in accompaniment. Eventually, the sheep seems to notice the camera (or perhaps the “recordist”), and stares straight at it. And us.
We get a palpable taste of what this sheep ranching biz is all about. The shearing pen where the thick winter wool is harvested is a noisy, dusty place. When it comes time to deliver the Spring lambs, grizzled codgers and leather-skinned ranch hands become midwives and nursemaids. This has got to be a humbling experience.
The main course of this mutton-themed, real-life drama finds our sheep ranchers herding their wooly charges into the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness, right up to timberline and beyond, where a pair of courageous (and not particularly well-adjusted) cowboys are charged with keeping them more or less bunched up, and more or less safe from the nightly danger of wolf and/or bear attacks. This being Montana, we’re talking about grizzly bears, known to be a danger to two-legged folk as well as ovines. (Thus the firearms.)
The experiences shared by these two gentlemen — one a mild-mannered, easy-going veteran herder and the other a lonesome, tantrum-prone young ‘poke with a crippled dog and a bad knee — end up adding a peculiarly Western human element to this tale that would otherwise have been dominated by bawling, bleating woolies.
No Silence of the Lambs, this.
JOHN P. MEYER. April 23, 2010. Pegasus News.