By Cal Meacham
In 2001 Montana rancher Lawrence Allested and his ranch hands set his 2,000+ sheep out to graze in the Beartooth mountains one last time. A 150 mile trek through difficult terrain and adverse conditions takes its toll on the helper animals (dogs and horses), the sheep and most visibly the ranchers themselves.
The film begins at the Montana ranch where we see the sheep get fed, sheared and the next generation are brought into this world. Observing these moments with a serene eye, there is no narrator to guide you or dialog to explain the scene. You are left to watch each moment as if you were plopped on a moving walkway that winds you through the various corners of the Mall of America and you watch and formulate your own feelings, thoughts of the random moments of life, without strict interpretation.
The ranchers soon set off with the massive hoard of sheep and they have to carefully guide the individually programmed wool machines down the streets of the small town and up into the mountainside. Some on horse back and others on foot, with the aide of their loyal dogs, the ranchers orchestrate this madness over rocky outcroppings and straight through wooded areas to reach the grassy pastures of the mountaintops. Communicating by walkie-talkie and years of experience the ranchers trip up the mountains seems as graceful as it is poetic to watch. Until they show nighttime for the first time, the journey unfolds without much adversity and you can simply sit back and watch some beautiful parts of the United State tumble by.
When night falls the threats turn from the landscape to the furry kind. The ever present threat of bears and other four legged beasts keeps the ranchers on edge and they rely heavily on their dog companions to alert them of any other animals. A dog barks, somewhere out in the darkness a bear(s) lurk and the ranchers high powered flashlights dart around the outskirts of the heard to find the assassin. You cannot script this kind of pure tension and you feel your heart rate pick up a bit as the search continues. For a moment you forget that it is real life and that these were real people in non-scripted situations. The bear is scared off with a few gun blasts in the air but the next day a dead sheep is found and the mountains and you see the wear on their faces, as each lost sheep is potential lost dollars.
An unnamed number of days into the journey you can tell it has tested the ranchers last nerve. The wear is all visual for much of the movie but the land fights, the animals revolt as horses grow tired and dogs won’t listen and you hear a rancher utter the words “I’d rather enjoy these mountains than hate them” as he realizes that he is growing old and tired of the grind.
There is no music (except for the rancher who sings from time to time) and the dialog is scattered, at best. The beautiful landscape and actions, by way of movement of a massive amount of sheep, really is the story. The difficulty of their journey spoken with pictures and expressions rather than an hour of complaining and hand ringing. Sweetgrass is the perfect documentary without an agenda, without the cameras or microphones getting in the way of the beautiful landscape.
Score – 8.5/10