“It never gets so good it can’t get better,” Chad Foster says during a phone call early in Bill and Turner Ross’s documentary Western. Foster, the mayor of Eagle Pass, Texas, is talking shop about crime along the border between the United States and Mexico, blissfully unaware that cartel violence is about to creep into his sanguine border town. Western, too, is caught somewhat flat-footed by this development. The final installment of the Ross brothers’ “Americana” trilogy of observational portraits of American towns and cities is more beholden to narrative than their previous films, the symphonic 45365 and Tchoupitoulas, but the directors demonstrate an increasing mastery at conveying the character of a setting with minimal exposition. Eagle Pass and its cross-border neighbor, Piedras Negras, are more than just towns that peacefully coexist; their economies and identities seem to thrive on their mutually beneficial partnership, replete with friendship ceremonies and cultural festivals.
Along with Foster, a mayor beloved for his ubiquity, kindness, and sharp tongue, the filmmakers devote most of their attention to Martín Walls, a cattle broker who obtains most of his stock from Piedras Negras. Walls is a successful entrepreneur, rubbing elbows at municipal ceremonies when he’s not counting herds or doting on his daughter, Brylyn. While Brylyn learns to count single-digit numbers, her father stresses the importance of learning Spanish, and tries to introduce her to the ins and outs of the family business. (She thrills to the disemboweling of a steer, and then turns to wretch.) Western quickly lays out a lived-in tapestry of iconic small-town values, just as it affirms the cross-cultural harmony between Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras. Nearly everyone in both towns seems to be bilingual, and jokes are exchanged about how “Washington” is “the enemy” that needlessly complicates their spirit of collaboration. In these moments, the film’s low-impact, vérité treatment allows the settings to blur together, only sometimes offering hints of what country the Ross brothers are filming in.
The filmmakers demonstrate a mastery at conveying the character of a setting with minimal exposition.
Western develops a heavier hand once violence between the rival Zeta and Sinaloa cartels sneaks toward Piedras Negras. The screen goes black to play audio of a Mexican news report about a brutal murder in nearby Acuña, where a dead body holds a sign that reads “This is a warning.” Then a crow alights on a piece of barbed wire, and the Rosses cut to a bull bloodied by a matador at a local ceremony. There’s a similar, blunt artifice to the transitions after additional cut-to-black reports of violence: the sound of gunshots yields to municipal fireworks; after a border shutdown, a dead bull is dragged out of the ring. It’s fascinating to watch the film so strikingly embrace a narrative that’s been imposed on it. Foster and Walls, though, are left reeling and paranoid by the encroaching threat. They insist that the two cities have been and will remain insulated from drug violence, and damn the federal government for disrupting the local economy as they pour billions of dollars into border fencing. “There’s nothing happening on this border,” Foster tells a reporter. “Relatively speaking, relatively speaking, relatively speaking,” he adds.
The film gets swept up in this speculation, but relaxes as the cartel feud reaches its apogee (Western was shot between 2010 and 2011) and commerce screeches to a halt. The Rosses revert to their early, quiet focus on cultural ties and try to forge a new normal, where outdoor concerts come lined with armed guards, and the days of a cattle man are spent flying kites instead of branding steer. Both Walls and Foster attend church, as though out of measures that might assuage the damage done to their town and their livelihood. Meanwhile, things keep getting worse, as one area mayor dies and another gets caught in crossfire at a local restaurant. After the film’s early optimism and speculative midsection, Western struggles to manage all the rich dramatic irony of its final half hour, perched uneasily between plot and stasis. Once the narrative of the drug war fully insinuates itself into the rhythms of life in Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, the filmmakers seem unsure of how to reclaim their own story, but for most of Western, they exhibit a remarkable faculty for integrating the news into their portrait of two towns and two men on the edge.