Sweetgrass ★★★★½

Lucien Castaing-Taylor, one half of the directorial duo behind last year's exquisite quasi-doc Leviathan, takes us on a journey eight years in the making; across mountains and creeks, enduring many days and many nights, experiencing both the loving and loathing of nature alongside a group of sheep herders in Montana. I'm told that filming began sometime in 2001, and the film was completed by '09, so it's quite an amazing feat that an 100-minute feature was compiled - or should I say, compressed - from so much footage. Even more exceptional is how Castaing-Taylor argues for the doc's very existence. On paper, this sounds like a huge bore, and to many I expect it still will be, yet somehow following these darn cowboys and their herd makes for one of the more unique and invigorating cinematic ventures of its year.

Similar to Leviathan, the style can be best described as minimalist. There is decidedly more dialogue here than there was there, since the exploration of man's connection to the wilderness is far more intimate in Sweetgrass in a way that might even make Tarkovsky proud, although once again there's no background noise or narration. So it isn't a traditional doc, but think about it; if it was, it would have gotten old real fast. But it doesn't, because the director appeals to aural and visual pleasures first and foremost. Sweetgrass is an elaborate soundscape that just happens to be accompanied by the occasional awe-inspiring, painterly image and then some. It goes out of its way to show us things we probably haven't seen before. That is certainly admirable. And the fact that it also appeals to such universal themes as man vs wild in a genuinely provocative way takes the material to a whole other level. I'm excited to see anything and everything that Castaing-Taylor does next.

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