The documentary Sweetgrass describes itself as an “unsentimental elegy to the American West.” And while it is true that the film doesn’t get wishy-washy, preachy, or overtly nostalgic, the film doesn’t lack for sentiment.
It’s such a gorgeous, simple, beautiful little movie that it is very hard not to get emotionally involved in its story. Which is surprising, considering that the plot consists of following sheep herder-cowboys as they saddle up and lead a herd across the mountains of Montana. Along the way they encounter bears, fatigue, physical injuries, loneliness, and mental anguish.
What distinguishes Sweetgrass from other documentaries – even documentaries that employ a similarly detached, silent style – is its visual language. Filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucian Castaign-Taylor employ a light touch to the images. Each frame is exquisitely composed, and the pacing feels almost meditative. As a documentary, I can only think of Die groβe Stille, Phiip Gröning’s transcendental reflection on monastic life, as a comparison. What we watch is the American Cowboy, that iconic figure of manliness and heroism, at its most genuine. It’s hardly believable that this life still exists, that these men on horseback lead their herds through the wilderness, with rifles, lassos, and camping gear. How could you take your eyes off this film? It is a childhood dream come alive.
Much of the imagery draws from the best of the Western tradition – from John Ford to Sergio Leone to Clint Eastwood – making for a visually poetic movie that moves with a grace its subjects don’t possess. This is a Romantic art, work that takes the raw and rough reality of the natural world and turns it into something so sublime and sweet you can almost not stand to taste it. Like Romantic poetry, the drama of man working and warring against nature, when seen from the cliffs above Tintern Abbey, takes on a beauty unknown to those spitting, swearing, stinking actors caught in the motions of life at its most pure.
These are Romantic heroes, Solitary Reapers, beautifully rugged, and to ride alongside is to be in awe of a life you couldn’t lead, and yet you yearn for its authenticity. When the sheep drive is finally over, and the cowboys are back in trucks traveling down an empty Montana road, the screen goes black, and you only hear the sound of tires popping on the black asphalt. Simple white letters appear on the screen telling us that the last sheep drive occurred in 2003, and the film was shot between 2001 and 2003. The realization hits like the bumper of a speeding Dodge: what you have just seen is the last dying breath of the real life behind an American myth. And in the dark of the theater, you feel like weeping for the world.