A window into the rugged life of cowboys in Montana.
written by Kirk Michael
Lucien Castaing-Taylor‘s film Sweetgrass confirms a long-standing suspicion: if you’re not having hot sex with Heath Ledger, it really isn’t any fun being a shepherd in the isolated mountain basins of Montana.
Sure, the documentary starts off with satisfying rituals at century-old Allested Ranch: sheep being herded, sheep being sheared, sheep being ear-tagged, sheep being nursed. For the first half hour, the sheep flow together like a fluffy white river, even rolling down Main Street in Big Timber, Montana. The ranch hands have time for jokes, like the one about the rich gentleman looking for a brain transplant who’s willing to pay two million for a cowboy brain because “it’s never been used.”
But, come summertime, those cowboys have to get 1,200 ewes from the farm to distant summer grazing lands and that’s no small thing. In the four weeks it takes to get there, the soundtrack shifts from pleasant baa-ing to a mixture of crabby sheep and cowboys muttering profanely in different tongues.
"I also learned things from Sweetgrass. For instance, it’s instructive to know that bears’ eyes have a different shine in the night than sheep’s and that guard dogs will sometimes supplement their diet with the sheep they are guarding. "
Our two main characters in the open range, as much as we have characters besides the sheep and the mountains, are Pat, a horse-punching, ornery young man (I found unfortunate connotations in his habitual reference to the sheep as “cocksuckers”), and John, a misanthropic old hand with more affinity for the animals. They work all day, every day keeping the sheep together.
In one hilarious sequence, Castaing-Taylor captures Pat on a classic rant against hoofed mammals of all stripes and then follows along as the cowboy finally breaks down and calls his momma. John speaks much less frequently, his lungs perhaps hurting from the constant intake of hand-rolled cigarette smoke, and maintains a laconic distance from his partner. The only time we see the two men mutually excited is when John finds what Pat believes to be a genuine Indian obsidian arrowhead.
While I agree with other reviewers that it is a beautifully shot film, Sweetgrass is still strange looking. The grainy camera might have reminded me of The Wild Bunch (another cowboys last ride movie) if it weren’t even more like watching those informative Reading Rainbow segments in the '80s when LeVar Burton got out into the field. I did admire how Castaing-Taylor allowed us lingering compositions of the manmade in nature—a shepherd, his horse, his sheep, and his bright yellow walkie-talkie against a backdrop of limitless pasture.
I also learned things from Sweetgrass. For instance, it’s instructive to know that bears’ eyes have a different shine in the night than sheep’s and that guard dogs will sometimes supplement their diet with the sheep they are guarding.
After the screening we were able to ask questions of the director, Castaing-Taylor (who does not seem nearly as pompous and foreign as his name suggests), and his answers are the reason that I have the few facts that I’ve included in this review. Sweetgrass is an atypical documentary—there’s no explanatory voiceover, no introductions to people who appear, no talking heads, and no titles after the opening credits. The film was shot in cheap digital on a camera powered by solar panels, after all.
The shoestring aesthetic of the film is what made it so funny when an audience member asked Castaing-Taylor how he got the helicopter shot of sheep spilling over a mountain. The director explained that did not actually have access to a helicopter for any shots and that he would hike out before dawn to get different views (he also apologized for that particular shot being somewhat blurry—it was hard to focus because he had accidentally pepper-sprayed himself in a panic when he thought he heard a bear coming).
Castaing-Taylor also talked about how liberals and conservatives have conflicting definitions of “wilderness areas” and “sustainable agriculture.” This is the one area I wish he covered more in the film—we see the hardworking splendor of shepherding but we don’t really know what was at stake for the cowboys and ranchers unless we read the press materials. The director said that Sweetgrass is just one part of an ongoing series that he just recently completed after ten years of fieldwork. Maybe I’ll stay tuned to find out more, but that’s a lot of sheep.
White Tank Top is a blog written by Kirk Michael, a Seattlite who loves film and, we think, writes about it really well. Stay tuned for more biweekly posts on the CAB, where WTT reviews films of all genres and box office rankings.