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Big Sky Country Mile

MOVIE REVIEW
Sweetgrass (2009)

Sweetgrass-pat-connolly
Cinema Guild

“Sweetgrass” may be the most unusual movie you’ve never seen. It is a documentary with no narration, no soundtrack, minimal dialogue and a lot of sheep. Here, we have extreme avant-garde filmmaking: creative partners Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor have created a 101-minute work of art stripped of all common technique and polish. What remains is a slim and imperfect examination of sheepherders in the American Northwest.

The film follows a small group of herders in 2003 as they lead hundreds of sheep on a final journey to pasture deep in the mountains of Montana. Little background is given aside from the opening 15 minutes of the documentary, which show the preparation for the 150-mile expedition. Sheep eat and give birth. The shepherds shave and collect the wool off the sheep. Then, suddenly, the trip begins; and for the remainder of the film, the viewer is taken on a spectacularly beautiful tour of the northwestern plains and mountains.

The tagline for “Sweetgrass” reads “The last ride of the American cowboy,” but this is poetic misrepresentation because such a statement brings to mind images of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. In this film, the cowboys — or shepherds — are largely supporting characters. The true stars of “Sweetgrass” are the sheep and the Montana landscape. Both are given tremendous amounts of screen time and provide the aesthetic beauty that becomes the film’s greatest strength.

Unfortunately, there are so many laborious wide shots tracking the sheep across the mountains that no story is able to emerge. The sheep make plenty of noise, but sadly, there are no subtitles to translate. The herders, on the other hand, rarely speak. And when they do open their mouths, their discussions are unremarkable with the exception of one portion of the film focusing on bears attacking the flock of sheep. It is one instance where the life of a herder is examined with depth; we are given a glimpse into their struggles. Soon after, the sheep are given center stage again, and the film lazes back into undeveloped silence.

By the end of the film, two herders named John Ahern and Pat Connolly surface as the main human players on screen. Mr. Connolly is insignificant to the story, other than one slightly irritating scene where he calls his mother atop a mountain and complains about the physical hardship of the journey. Mr. Ahern, though, comes forth as the lone compelling force in “Sweetgrass.” Equipped with a chronic cough and a wonderfully deep voice reminiscent of former N.F.L. broadcaster Pat Summerall, Mr. Ahern captivates whenever he is briefly on screen. In a few irresistible scenes, he even sings to the sheep. His old and gentle persona has the necessary gravity to interest an audience. Yet, similar to most aspects of the film, he is severely underdeveloped.

One cannot help but wonder if this film would have worked better as a short documentary rather than a feature-length movie. A shortened version would allow the slice-of-life approach to flourish without requiring analysis and guidance that the current feature lacks. This film never challenges or engages the viewer in a meaningful way. Ms. Barbash and Mr. Castaing-Taylor deserve a fair amount of criticism for their editing. The chosen method of observational filmmaking is high on style and low on substance. Although the approach may be original, “Sweetgrass” does not succeed because Ms. Barbash and Mr. Castaing-Taylor have trimmed down the content to such a degree that by the end there is little left to digest.

SWEETGRASS

Opens on April 22 in Britain.

Recorded by Lucien Castaing-Taylor; sound editing and mix by Ernst Karel; produced by Ilisa Barbash; released by Dogwoof. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: John Ahern, Lawrence Allested, Elaine Allested and Pat Connolly.

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