If you are looking for a movie with a happy ending, a movie that has dialogue and music, a movie that requires no thinking, a movie that feature top actors, a movie that will entertain you, then do not go to Sweetgrass. However, if you are looking for a movie that shows raw nature, life and death, real life and the ending of an era, then Sweetgrass is the movie for you.
Set in the Montana’s Absaroka‐Beartooth mountain range the Lawrence Allested family grazed their about 3000 sheep flock on a grazing permit that had been in his Norwegian‐American family for generations. This was the last sheep drive and the end of an era and displays the hard work that the ranchers eke out in the unforgiving mountains.
The scene opens with sheep chewing their cud and soon you are directed to the Bellwether ewe who is systematically chewing until she realizes she is the focus. Then she stops and gazes into your eyes and the movie starts. In the sheep yard, the mob mills about then rushes like a fast stream of white orbs into the barnyard, followed by a rancher on the ATV. Soon you are caught up in fast and furious shearing, each ewe taking about 2 minutes to be sheared, the wool kicked into a open hole and then the next ewe rolled on her back. You see rows of shearers with their stomachs being supported as they bend over for hours shearing ewes with no end in sight. It’s hard physical labor and now I really appreciate my wool hat even more.
Life is harsh as the ewes began to lamb. One ewe struggles to push out her lamb, taking a short break and then pushing again. A orphan lamb is put into a pen with a ewe with a single and the ewe is held while the orphan greedily suckles away and you heard the comments of how hardy the young orphan is. The orphan is not coddled but given a chance to succeed. A ewe needs helps and the shepherd pulls out her lamb. It lands on a garbage can lid and three orphans lambs are tossed on top of the new borne. The shepherds discuss among themselves of who gets to stay and life is fated. Another young lamb is fitted with the skinned coat of a dead lamb and put back with the grieving mother and the ewe will suddenly see her dead lamb come back to life. A fine statement on the Eve of Easter. (We saw the movie the night before Easter). The lambing scene can be a shock to the newcomers but those of us in the audience with sheep flocks could identify with each scene.
You see winter scenes, feeding the large flock, watching the flock in the shadows of trees and fresh shorn sheep looking for their herd. Clips of various scenes we all can relate to, some funny and some sad. Banding of the young lambs occur as the hands joke about Norwegian brains. Trailing of the sheep through an old town, some stores old and some modern. The Livestock Guardian dogs, the trucks, the sheepwagon, the horses, the pack mules, old and new all blended in. All as one and all on their own. Breath taking scenes that take you back in time. The occasional dialogue.
The journey to the mountains is over 150 miles and across tough terrain. They struggle as the sheep jam in a ravine. Walkie Talkies that are unclear adds to the frustration. You see the molasses movement and the impatience and struggle along side of them. You see a young girl and boy on their horse and wonder if they are the future generation. You realize that life is a struggle.
The mountains are unforgiving and harsh. Camp is set up and it is like the days of the wild west. No modern conveniences are here; a cranky old stove, wind whipping through the tent, sheep huddled in the twilight. When you think all is settled for the night, the Livestock Guardian dog start to bark and you see two dark red eyes of a predator. The weak light of the flashlight casts a eerie glow as the shepherd shoots in the air to scare it off.
The next day you hear the most dialogue in the entire film as the older hand and the younger hand discuss what it might be. There is no extra talk but enough talk. Later, they discover that a bear has killed a ewe and more discussion about what to do. You get wrapped up in this and expect something more; then the scene changes to the two hands discussing arrowheads they found on the mountain. From talk of chasing the bear away and the death of the ewe to talk about whether stone is a arrowhead scraper or an arrowhead, brings some humanity to the film. Later you are privy to the Livestock Guardian dogs, eating the remains of an ewe, perhaps the bear killed ewe. Even here, dogs jostle for position within the pack for their meal.
Vast panoramic sweeping views of the mountain range makes you realize that humans are not in control but must be in control of themselves to survive. Everything seems to works against the hands and they must make it through the summer and bring back a fatten flock. The sheep are reluctant to go up a mountain side and you are greeted with profanity for minutes as the hand and his dog struggle and are losing the battle. Interlaced with the profanity are commands to the dog and the camera slowly draws away until you are hundreds of yards away and they are small specks on the side of the mountain.
You sit in your seat and begin to feel their pain. From the cell phone call the young hand has with his mother; talking about how his knee clicks and hurts, how his horse is tired and ribby, how wore out his dog, how windy and how he still wants to love and not hate the mountain. Then he ends the call and you laugh as he says he just wants to torment his mother but you do realize all what he says is true. He gently caresses his dog and talks to his black and white sidekick with a gently, caring voice.
Stunning mountain shots await you and you breathe deeply of the crisp, cool mountain air and dream of a life, unencumbered of traffic jams, sitting behind a desk and politics. You feel for the men, the sheep and the fading way of life. One gorgeous shot shows a jagged peak, miles away and you see a faint trace of the snow line. Then the camera pans in and it is the sheep trailing down the extremely steep mountain. The shepherd is leading his horse and falls, the trusty steed avoids him. You clutch the side of your chair as they work their way down
Soon the summer months are over and the flock heads back to civilization. Everyone is wore out and the long journey comes to an end. The circle of life is complete for the sheep; from birth, from the summer journey to the fall back at the ranch. As the film ends, the older shepherd is riding shotgun in a pickup and they discuss what is going to happen. He talks about getting a couple of goats or sheep but then pipes up, he wants to wait a couple of weeks before he decides to do anything. At this point, the poignant pain emerges and you realize the old way of life is gone, we have lost a key part of our history and life is never the same. It’s the ending of a magnificent and traditional era and I am glad this film documents it from the birth of a lamb to the death of an old way of life.
I highly recommend this movie. It's real.