The sheep turns its head and looks directly into the camera, holding its gaze all the way. If it could talk it might say: “Sweetgrass is my show. These humans are just along for the ride.”
There’s no question which side has the numbers. This immersive, almost wordless documentary about Montana sheepherders and their flocks is a bobbing, bleating sea of wool, led up mountains and through valleys in varying degrees of order. The journey is the thing here; sticklers for linear narrative best look elsewhere. That doesn’t make Sweetgrass any less of an epic quest. This is a real cowboy story, stocked with men’s men who drink their coffee black and hoof it over 150 miles of rough land.
That, and a whole lot of sheep.
You’ll find few films that better capture the rhythms and routines of man and woman at work in nature. Using long, often still takes that insist you stick around for a while and take in the grainy but usually gorgeous images, filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor create the feeling of being dropped into a 21st-century Jack London story. The herders are people of few words that don’t pertain to the all-consuming job at hand. They’ve got sheep to bring to pasture, and they’re going to do that come hell or high water. Or snow, bear attacks, sore knees and abject loneliness.
Sweetgrass is a patient, contemplative anthropological experience that transports the viewer to what is likely unfamiliar terrain. Leave your usual movie questions – “Why are they doing this?” “Where are they going?” – at the door and go along for the ride. Then prepare for the occasional surprise.
The film’s signature moment, featured in the trailers, captures a young cowboy high atop a mountain, having a bad day with uncooperative sheep. What does a young man in distress do? He calls his mom and cries. Flutters of technology create a rich thematic tension in Sweetgrass. These rugged individuals are no less rugged for communicating by walkie-talkie and reaching out to touch someone on the phone. But every time they do so, you’re jolted into the present and out of the Wild West myth. These folks are real, and as we see them sheer their flock, help mothers give birth and lambs find milk, we’re reminded that they take their work very seriously.
Two thoughts hit me as I left the theater after Sweetgrass. I may never eat lamb chops again. And I’m glad a film like this can still find distribution amid the megaplexes showing The Back-Up Plan on five screens. It may not be your thing, but Sweetgrass is unlike anything you’ll see in a theater this year. It bravely strays from the flock.
CHRIS VOGNAR. April 22 2010. Dallas Morning News