In 2003, a group of shepherds led some 3,000 sheep through a perilous, months-long, 150-mile-plus journey over public lands through Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture. Led by the grizzled John Ahorn and his younger protégé, Pat Connelly, it would be the last such drive of its kind, ending a long tradition carried on by herders of Norwegian descent. Most of the above information doesn’t appear until the closing credits of Sweetgrass, an austere documentary by husband-and-wife anthropologists Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, and the film both benefits and suffers from a lack of context. By not elucidating the history of this extraordinary, arduous journey—much less the personalities involved, or the ways in which the modern world makes it untenable—Barbash and Castaing-Taylor spare viewers some vital information. On the other hand, it makes the film more minimalist and hypnotic, a catalog of observations about the primal relationship between man and beast, and the still-daunting challenges of the Western landscape.
Sweetgrass’ first and most lasting impression is the bleating, a never-ending chorus of “baaaaaahs” that must sound to these cowboys like the cries of needy children. Even before they leave the barn, the film suggests the brutal labors of managing these animals, with scenes of the herders shearing them en masse in claustrophobic pens and assisting them in the agonizing process of birthing their young. Once out in the mountains and plains—and in one stunning shot, the main drag in a one-street town—the sheep prove tough enough to wrangle even before nature provides its own obstacles. It’s about 18 minutes before anyone speaks a word in Sweetgrass, and once they do, Ahorn emerges as a loveable old crank given to cursing his flock for their natural unruliness. But the film is less about people or this specific herding ritual than about the majesty of the landscape and the interplay between these animals, their keepers, and the dictates of nature itself. It’s a slice of dying life.