"The $2M Cowboy Brain"
You get a taste of what "Sweetgrass" will be like with it's very first shot—a medium close-up of one sheep chewing its cud...and chewing...and chewing...and chewing...and chewing. Just as you start thinking of making a popcorn run, the sheep turns to the camera and stops chewing, staring.
Fade to Black. Title up.
It's a comic delight. It also telegraphs the kind of amiable walk "Sweetgrass" makes. The film is 101 minutes long, and I'd be surprised if there were 100 shots in it. Most of them are minutes long, from one vantage point, merely observing. In one set-up, the camera moves from a horse standing still, just slowly enough to catch it stomping its feet good-bye and we keep sliding, sliding, sliding until we come across a cowboy sleeping under a tree, snoring while, around him, the sheep graze—it concludes with an extended comic sequence of sleepy dialogue. It moves slightly faster than the sun in the Western sky, but it offers quiet joys aplenty.
If you don't mind looking at a lot of sheep.
For those adverse to the herd instinct, they may rather take a spot under that tree than watch this film, but to these 3-Dead ADD eyes, the film is a tonic—real, simple, and alternately humorous and beautiful, as we follow a long sheep drive through the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains in Montana. The critters are interesting to watch in their ant-like mentality, but the humans are just as interesting as they go about coaxing and vexing the sheep to go where they want them to go, and sometime in the near-future, please?
We get some working-farm shots of herding, shearing,* birthing, feeding the babies, then leading them out on their big trek to grazing country in the open air. It's shot with no commentary and an eye for the unusual commonplace, dispassionately, in the style of Frederick Wiseman. It is what it is, and it's as close to being unmanipulated as shooting a picture can possibly be. Only the editing betrays a perspective.
Once on the trail, the focus turns to two cowboys, John Ahern and Pat Connolly, as Mutt-and-Jeff a pair of wranglers as there could. John is an old hand, with gnarled hands and an endless cigarette dangling from his lips, and a laconic way of saying sumpthin' in the least words possible, if at all. He addresses the sheep as "Ladies.." and there's a mantra of old songs forever escaping from him. With John, there never is heard a discouraging word.
The younger cowboy, Pat, though, is another matter. Not exactly happy in his work, he moves 'em out throwing rocks and shit at 'em, and an encyclopedic stream of curses that would shame a sailor. Then, on a mountain-top, he gets on his cell-phone and lays it all on Mom in a withering litany of complaints. Then, whining done, he gets back to work, slightly rejuvenated.
Judge not lest ye have to do that job. You end up lovin' these guys, half-way envying them the view and half-way shaking your head in admiration at their tenacity. It's a hard-scrabble, hard-tack-sucking way of life surrounded by awesome beauty and dumb animals. "The $2 Million Dollar Cowboy Brain" refers to a meandering joke one of the hands tells disparaging the intellect of the cowboy. The rest of the movie belies it—they're worth every nickle.
Together they drive, keeping one eye on the sheep, and another for predators (there's a grisly shot of the remains of a bear-chewed sheep), catching sleep when they can, directing dogs and sheep the rest. No narration, no music (except the constant high vibrato of many chorusing sheep in the wind), it's a dry bare-bones no-nonsense look at a vanishing way of life.
Yojim-Bob sez "Check it Out."
"Sweetgrass" is a Matinee.
Cowboy Ahern, asleep in the sheep in "Sweetgrass"
* That's an interesting sequence: the shearers grab the sheep, flip them on their backs nestled by the men's legs and shave, shave, shave while the animals look a little stunned and get a full-body shave. Not comfortable, but the image of the sheep leaning against the men ass-over-teakettle is one that stays with you, as so much of the movie does.