As the year in film draws to a close, Henry Stewart is scrambling to catch up with some of the movies he missed, so he can tell you whether to bump them up in your queue or feel guilt-free for deleting them. Today, he discusses Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass.
Sweetgrass purely documents: without music, talking heads or bottom-thirds, it chronicles an old-fashioned sheep-drive through the mountains of Montana in 2003—the last time such shepherding would occur. This movie’s not so much about the sheep, though, which are often shot like Riefenstahlian crowds. It’s about the cowboys—er, sheepboys?—who move them. An unsentimental elegy for a classically American way of life emerges: a rugged, Western way of life, populated by irascible, vulgar-mouthed good ol’ boys whose heads are surely as thick as the calluses on their hands. One even dresses like the Marlboro Man.
But Sweetgrass also doesn’t seem sad, exactly, to see this lifestyle go the way of covered wagons. The stunning vistas of American landscape come to seem like ironic backdrops to the frustrating, miserable, almost literally backbreaking work of sheep driving and its inevitable complications: sheep that won’t move; bears that won’t stop eating them. “I’d rather enjoy these mountains than hate them,” one cowboy tells his mama over a cell phone, during an epic whine in which he lays out every wretched problem in his wretched life. Conservative politicians may point back to a better, purer way of life in this country. But Sweetgrass, while barely trying, makes the case that life’s a lot better today than it ever was.