In the first years of this decade, while America committed itself to a global war in which our very way of life generally considered to be at stake, a quintessentially American way was quietly fading into obsolescence in the mountains of Montana. Sweetgrass, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s gorgeous, frequently hilarious sheepherding documentary, now playing, recounts the last years of summer grazing in the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains, with the breathtaking vistas and mythologized rituals of the American frontier now the setting for autumnal absurdity.
This is the Real America, with country music and war reports on the radio; but though the shepherds (as in Brokeback Mountain, they’re not cowboys) are the last of a dying breed, this ain’t exactly Ride the High Country. In a stunning wide shot with the shadow of a cumulus cloud passing across the a valley, miked-up shepherd Pat Connolly is wrangling grazing sheep, practically dots, who’ve strayed too far down the side of the mountain, cursing the “cocksucking motherfuckers” all the while (“Get back up there, you bitches!”).
Some time after his cussing, Connolly will call his mother (apparently the crest of a ridge is ideal for picking up a cellphone signal) with a tearful litany of complaints: his knee is tweaked, his horse and dog are hurt, the weather’s miserable, the sheep too. He’s saying his prayers, but his whiny admission that “I’d rather enjoy these mountains than hate ’em” recalls nothing so much as Will Forte skewing the performance of another noted faux-cowpuncher momma’s boy during the 2004 debates: “Frankly, I don’t know why my opponent even wants this job, you know… cause it’s hard.”
(If Connolly is Dubya, his more experienced older partner John Ahearn must be Reagan, with his mildly senescent mumblings and frequent napping seeming to promise deep, withheld reserves of handed-down folk wisdom.)
How to keep the flock secure? They lose a sheep to predators one night, and can only complain that the guard dogs didn’t bark; later, they’ll fire off a few rounds at a retreating family of bears (“Fool me once… shame on… Shame on you… Fool me, you can’t get fooled again”). Their leadership is marked by indecision, as when the herd is blocked off and milling about on an impassible trail, the shephers coordinating a route on fuzzy walkie-talkies; and by resentment (as Ahearn coos to his horse in the morning, his sweet talk is along the lines of “you’re sick of all these sheep, aren’t you, girl”).
These are, perhaps, the inevitable failings of those responsible, from dawn to dusk, for the safety and well-being of a helpless, impulsive, bleating horde, which is either implacably immobile or uncontrollably chasing each other in the same direction, all following a leader who’s following a leader who’s following… One shot in particular begs to be repurposed as a visual punchline by Michael Moore, or whoever the right-wing Michael Moore is supposed to be these days: a seemingly endless, identical herd of baa-ing sheep flowing down an archetypal small-town Main Street.