Though the breathtaking vistas of Big Sky Country in Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor's unforgettable sheepherding documentary come close to heaven, it's telling that AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" can be faintly heard over the sound of the electronic contraptions that hired hands wield to shear the docile creatures, one of the preparatory stages before the roundup begins. A record of the last time, in the early aughts, that cowboys led their flocks up into Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains for summer pasture, Sweetgrass captures the arduousness and the awe (not awww) of a vanishing way of life. Animals strike curious poses: One of the white, fluffy sheep stares right into Castaing-Taylor's camera as the film begins, a moment played not for critter cuteness but for ovine empathy, immediately setting the patient, unsentimental, observational tone. Just as you begin to distinguish the sounds of different bleats, you witness the absurd force of the sheep en masse as they run past a Radio Shack on a small-town street. High up in the mountains, they become unwieldy, leading enraged herder Pat Connolly to string together the most inspired blue streak ever uttered against ewes. Sweetgrass reminds us of the stupefying magnificence of its setting—beautiful for spacious skies and mountain majesties—while never letting us forget its formidable perils.
As far as the eye can see: nothing but mutton.
Runs at Varsity, Fri., March 26–Thurs., April 1. Not rated. 99 minutes.