Sweetgrass opens with two incredibly compelling shots that would do Béla Tarr proud. In some ways, they set the tone for the film; there's a lot of landscape, a lot of sheep, and a lot of lingering shots, either stationary or slow-pan. Barbash and Castaing-Taylor are well aware of Tarr. And if the movie played out its full length as it does in those first two shots and the twenty-five minutes that follow them, I would have put this pretty high on my list of favorite documentaries ever. Unfortunately, as you may surmise from that last sentence, it doesn't.
The first half-hour is gorgeous. It keeps up with the sheep-and-landscape theme. Humans exist in the movie, of course, but at no point during the first half-hour are those humans more than background noise, either in their presence in the film or the movie's sound (which, I should warn you, my wife found incredibly annoying; I had no problems with it). It is languid, and it is breathtaking.
Then the humans take center stage, and while I won't say the entire thing goes to pot, it takes a pretty sharp left turn in that direction. These are not likable folks, for the most part. Actually, I've been sitting here for ten minutes trying to come up with diplomatic ways to talk about this, and I can't. I hated these people. Every last one of them. The sheep have better personalities.
Whenever the directors left the humans and cut to another slow pan shot of a huge mountain with sheep coming down it or a tree framed in moonlight or a sheep's face in close-up, I rejoiced a little. I also spent some time hoping that there would be another human-free half-hour bookending the film, but (spoiler alert!) it was not to be.
Well worth watching for the first half-hour. Touch and go after that. ** 1/2
The sheepherds speak of their worry adjusting to the future when this way of life ends. The documentary is a diversion. But in the way 2001: A Space Odyssey is more insightful than The Search for Spock, it is a better work of art than Restrepo. When their next films come out, Barbash and Castaing-Taylor will likely receive more critical acclaim than Hetherington and Junger. But Sweetgrass is a merely a diversion, not a comprehensive investigation of a meaningful problem.
Yeah about that. Not much has changed in this profession since the 19th century. The cowboys still ride horses, camp out under the stars and rely on dogs for a lot of help in keeping the sheep in line. Cell phones are about the only indication that this is now the 21st century. And I should warn those of you expecting lots and lots of footage of cute sheep roaming around the mountains that there is a gruesome shot of an eviscerated sheep which speaks to the difficulty and frustration for the cowboys which is expressed in the most colorful language heard since "Deadwood" went off the air.