Ever since documentaries started denting the mainstream 15 or so years ago, there's been an influx of movies about pretty much anything you can imagine. Wheelchair-bound athletes? Check. Guys who have sex with horses? Check. Puppet regimes that have changed hands a half-dozen times between the film's shoot and release? Yep.
So it really should come as no surprise that a married couple has finally unveiled Sweetgrass, their eight-years-in-the-making documentary about two cowboys, 3,000 sheep, and the Montana mountains they all head to for a summer of grazing.
Yes, Sweetgrass is a movie about sheep. And it's a narration-free movie about sheep to boot. But there are some moments of pure tranquility here, as Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor haul their cameras over hills and dales toward their destination. (This is the last time the shepherds made the three-month, 150-mile trek, so there's some poignancy to the proceedings.)
Sweetgrass begins at the ranch, where a group of herders prepare for their long journey by shearing the sheep of their wooly coats. They go about their daily routine as the filmmakers focus on their tasks. The film's best scenes are these composed images — like when a tractor leads a group of sheep through the middle of the small town's main street, or when a procession of horses walks past a postcard-worthy vista.
Even though there's no narration to pull along viewers, Sweetgrass isn't a totally silent movie. Natural elements like howling wind, bleating sheep, and the crunch of feet on snow figure prominently on the soundscape. The cowboys, however, don't say much, even as they set up a makeshift campsite or prepare food.
Still, little happens here. Sheep walk, cowboys follow ... and there's not much conflict. These guys are old hands at this kind of work, and most of their journey runs as planned, even if it is a time-consuming trudge. One guy calls his mom on his cell phone to complain about a bum knee, lack of sleep, and some uncooperative sheep, and a bear sorta attacks the herd one night. For a narration-free documentary about sheep, this passes as major drama.