Though the breathtaking vistas of Big Sky Country in Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s unforgettable sheep-herding documentary come close to heaven, it’s telling that AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” can be faintly heard over the sound of the electric contraptions that hired hands yield to shear the docile creatures, one of the preparatory stages before the round-up begins. A record of the last time, in the early aughts, that cowboys led their flocks up into Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains for summer pasture, Sweetgrass captures the arduousness and the awe (not awww) of a vanishing way of life.
Animals strike curious poses: One of the white, fluffy sheep stares right into Castaing-Taylor’s camera as the film begins, a moment played not for critter cuteness but for ovine empathy, immediately setting the patient, unsentimental, observational tone. The sheep are sometimes handled brusquely, especially during the fleecing. A few just-born lambs, still sticky with placenta, are bullied a bit by their human OBs. Occasionally, they’re treated with extreme tenderness: One lamb sports a onesie; during the sheep drive, herding vet John Ahern coos off-screen, “How are you girls tonight?” Just as you begin to distinguish the sounds of different bleats, you witness the absurd force and power of the sheep (roughly 3,000 of them) en masse as they run past a Radio Shack and a saloon on a small-town street. High up in the mountains, they become obstinate and unwieldy, leading enraged younger herder Pat Connolly, radio-mic’d like John, to string together the most inspired blue streak ever uttered against ewes.
Barbash and Castaing-Taylor, husband-and-wife filmmakers and visual anthropologists who spent three summers in Montana documenting the last drives, pay tribute to this disappearing culture of the American West without ever romanticizing it. Prone to dozing off, creased-faced John, a tiny cloisonné sheep pin affixed to the front of his cowboy hat, wonders, “How can a dog like me when people don’t?” After his cuss binge, high-strung Pat, perched atop a peak like a character in a classic oater, pulls out his cell phone and cries to his mama, “My knee’s all screwed up! I need a day off,” irrevocably puncturing the mythos of the cowboy. Whether narcoleptic or neurotic, these men nonetheless toil relentlessly; their labor, soon to be obsolete—for reasons that are never made explicit—is archived and thus honored.
Sweetgrass is also a fascinating document of various types of intimacy, both inter- and intra-species. Though John clearly has the gentler disposition toward his woolly charges (“Good morning, sheep”), even Pat’s invective suggests the rage of someone who has reached the breaking point in a difficult, long-term relationship. Beyond the ovine, companionships with horses and dogs become crucial in the 150-mile trek. Pat, seen doing the dishes as John naps at their bare-bones campsite or praising his elder’s arrowhead find, is deferential to the more experienced shepherd, who kindly indulges Pat’s chattiness. That intimacy extends to the filmmaker and his subjects: Though never seen, Castaing-Taylor (who prefers the term “recordist” to director) followed and filmed the shepherds up and down the mountains, his presence addressed warmly by those whose livelihood is about to change forever. (Barbash, who produced and co-edited, stayed in town with their children.)
“I’d rather enjoy these mountains than hate ’em,” Pat blubbers to Mom during that infamous phone call. Sweetgrass reminds us of the stupefying magnificence of its setting—beautiful for spacious skies and mountain majesties—while never letting us forget its formidable perils: grizzly bears and gray wolves, for starters, predators that leave bloody sheep carcasses in the night. John, Pat, and the sheep return to the ranch triumphant, the younger shepherd unable to contain his glee. “What are you going to do now, John?” a man driving a pickup asks. His dozy passenger pauses before responding, “I don’t know. I didn’t want to think about it for a week.” A cycle and a way of life end—not melodramatically but matter-of-factly.