Tracing the very last sheep drive up Montana’s Beartooth Mountains to summer pasture, “Sweetgrass” offers a one-of-a-kind experience. Its visuals range from sheep-level closeups to soaring overviews, while its complex source soundtrack seamlessly melds human and ovine contributions. At once epic-scale and earthbound, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s startling docu plays like a mad cross between Howard Hawks’ “Red River” and “Grass,” Merian Cooper’s paean to vanishing nomadic traditions (with a dash of Tex Avery’s “Drag-along Droopy”). Skedded to open at Gotham’s Film Forum in January, “Sweetgrass” may prove a novelty hit.
“Sweetgrass” showcases an elemental intimacy between man and animal. Initially, those beasts are only sheep, definitively asserted in the pre-title shot as Castaing-Taylor’s camera zeroes in on one blue-tagged specimen that placidly stares back. In the claustrophobic confines of the shed, the sheep are held fast between the legs of men shearing them; inside a barn, newborn lambs are yanked from their mothers’ bodies or dragged off to nurse in separate stalls.
Once the drive starts, however, the sheer number of sheep (some 3,000) makes this herd an unstoppable force — a river of white, flowing up and down hills like some primeval juggernaut that men, horses and dogs struggle to control, not always successfully.
The herders’ materials are primitive: teepees made of branches and canvas, stoves as old as the hills, worn saddles. The rhythmic, sing-song urgings of the shepherds mingle with the bells and the bleatings of the sheep, along with the shepherds’ walkie-talkie chatter, in a deafening clamor. Woven throughout is the heavy breathing of men and horses pushed to exhaustion in the thin, cold mountain air.
Once the herd reaches the highlands (the months-long drive compressed to mere minutes of film), only two men are left to watch: John Ahern, a weatherbeaten veteran, and the much younger Pat Connolly, who has a tougher time adjusting. Frustrated beyond measure, Connolly begins to curse the sheep and, at one deliciously comic point, his countless epithets echo peevishly as the camera slowly retreats to encompass the grandiose sweep of the land.
Unfortunately, the pic’s image quality is not equal to its ambitious compositions. Poor resolution occasionally condemns “Sweetgrass” to a pale reflection of what a 35mm or high-quality HD camera could have yielded.