Like a slow procession of aged western iconography, Sweetgrass strolls into the rocky hills overlooking Big Timber, Montana, longing to capture the mysticism of century-old treks on the edge of extinction. Documenting the final massive migration of sheep from the low country up into the Absaeoka-Beartooth Mountains for pasture, directors Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor attempt to document each detail of the arduous and dangerous journey. Throughout Sweetgrass, the filmmakers fold themselves into the background, avoiding musical cues and formal interviews in favor of quiet observation and natural sound design. This aesthetic approach allows the viewer to relish in the silence of the landscape, juxtaposing the essence of the classic West with the modern-day issues/technologies plaguing the business at hand.
There’s no use for words during the lyrical first act, as sheep, cowboys, and dogs effortlessly merge together in the daily routines of ranch life. Instead, the diverging sounds of nature intersect with the varying levels of sheep baas drowning the space, and during these early moments of work Sweetgrass gives a fascinating window into the rhythms of the modern cowboy. The duties range from the precise to the aggressive, but each makes up a piece of this finely tuned mechanism of production. The most interesting segment comes early on, when sheep get herded through a small shearing station, the workers skinning off the layers of wool with effortless precision. It’s just one of many striking examples of their silent professionalism on display.
When the flocks finally make their way into the high country for the summer, the sheep form a long and winding column that floods the town’s main street, blocks traffic, and finally spills out into the wilderness beyond. The sheep literally clog the frame, stifling the cowboys attempting to keep the forward momentum strong. In terms of the western genre, these images represent familiar yet powerful thematic undercurrents, contextualizing honor and professionalism into a modern-day ritual of hardened dedication. The images of cowboys herding epic proportions of sheep recall the picturesque prologue in Kevin Costner’s underrated Open Range, another traditional ode to the patterns of western stoicism. Each film pits the iconic representation of the cowboy against harsh conditions, both natural and manmade.
But when the cowboys reach their stated destination high atop a beautifully green hillside, Sweetgrass begins to focus more on the men themselves than their trade. Stranded with just the sheep and their barebones supplies, the long-term sheep herders named John and Pat are left to themselves, partaking in disjointed conversations touching on topics like arrowheads, dogs, and wolverines. These talks are usually cut up with long moments of silence, making the pauses and digressions all the more dull. This strange shift in focus comes to a terribly inane head when Pat, the younger of the two, berates the sheep from afar with a childish, profanity-infused rant. His anger stems from a deep-seated frustration with his situation, but the filmmakers fail to show how any of this matters in the grand scheme of the narrative. After a long, whiney phone conversation with his mother, Pat looks at the camera and snickers, “I love torturing her.” The joke is most certainly lost on the viewer, and his character comes off as arrogant and manipulative.
Still, Sweetgrass comes down from its self-pitying mountain high with a climactic descent potted by dangerous bear sightings followed by gunfire, a fitting end to an old-school testament to western ideals. The almost inherent ability for these cowboys to repel the viewer with their words and allure us with their actions is what makes the film so doubly compelling and frustrating, truly a double-edged sword. After returning home, John sits in his truck during a final moment of silence, and we get a distinct sense of his laconic melancholy just beneath the grizzled façade. For all modern cowboys, the future of their profession remains opaque on so many levels, but John never cowers in the face of uncertainty.
As an ode to the western frontier, Sweetgrass might not be consistently engaging or even convincing, but it’s endlessly poetic regarding the void left by a disintegrating way of life. These men aren’t characters, or even multidimensional people, but icons forced into retirement by the changing times. Despite this permanent interruption of purpose, their connection with the landscape remains transcendent no matter the decade or century. Theirs is hard work that will always be canonized, be it through filmic representations or the memories of the men themselves.
Cinema Guild has released an adequate HD transfer of Sweetgrass, a visually stunning film no matter how you slice it. The close-up shots of endless flocks of sheep distinguish the varied subtleties of matted gray wool, while the colossal mountainsides contain a haunting essence in wide angle. It's almost impossible to visually distinguish the actions during the night sequences and the viewer has to rely on the consistently excellent sound design to clarify each sequence.
The audio commentary by husband/wife filmmaking team of Ilisba Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor adds insight into the problematic middle section of the film. They break down certain conversations between John and Pat that clarify some of the more emotional and professional reasons behind some of these seemingly pointless interactions. Additional scenes and a Fan Photo Gallery are weak additions to the DVD.
Sweetgrass lives and breathes the cowboy existence, flooding the frame with flocks of migrating sheep, silent vistas, and the occasional ridiculously muted conversation, merging them all into a fitting requiem for the modern-day western experience.