A hundred years of poetry, art and pop culture have painted over the hard and lonesome work of the cowboy. The reality, we’re often reminded, isn’t John Wayne/Marlboro Man romantic. It’s just another dirty. solitary job that most people wouldn’t want to do.
Michael Burton’s song, “Night Rider’s Lament,” made famous by Jerry Jeff Walker, is the rare country/western ballad that gets at something closer to the truth about this long-celebrated, long-dying vocation.
“Why do you ride for your money
Tell me why do you rope for short pay
You ain’t a’gettin’ nowhere
And you’re losin’ your share
Boy, you must have gone crazy out there.”
The new documentary “Bitterbrush” reminds us of the grinding, isolating nature of the work — poorly-paid and increasingly rare in the bargain — and that the innate poetry poetry in the image of those who do it. A cowboy, stooped by the days and years in the saddle, surveying the hilly, sagebrush-covered open range, is as iconic an image of America as there is.
Even when the cowboys are cowgirls. Not that the two-woman team of range-riders in Emelie Mahdavian’s intimate film ever call themselves that. Young Colie and Hollyn talk of “cowboying,” loving the idea of telling their children about their cowboying days, sometime down the road. We have no doubt they’ll romanticize these years, just like everyone else.
Mahdavian and her small crew are never seen in this cinema verite/fly-on-the-wall documentary. They don’t interview their subjects. They just follow the women’s routine, from loading up the truck with dogs and the trailer with (less willing) horses, move into a Spartan mountain cabin and spend their seemingly media-free months getting up at dawn, riding the range, rounding up strays and tending to livestock on the high ground summer-into-winter grazing in the foothills of the northern Rockies.
There are no special effects, there’s little drama — just a sick cow here, a new horse to be “broken” there. What we hear them talk about is mundane, cussing the cows, noting this new ride “isn’t the best” horse, but he goes where I point him.”
They’re never sentimental or even particularly gentle with the livestock, or the seven dogs they keep and who work with them, and in the one time we sense they’re talking to the filmmaker, they describe as “not pets, except in a few cases. But they earned it.”
But there’s something primal about how gorgeous Aspen trees are after the first dusting of snow in the fall, about the unhurried nature of long days in the saddle, time measured in weeks and months with little thought about the next freelance job that they’ll need to replace this one.
“I don’t want to be working for just a house my whole life,” Colie says, summing it all up for Hollyn, who ponders the trailer life she and her beau, Elijah, will be starting their family in.
The only back-story we hear is how both came from cattle families, how they were treated differently than their parents’ sons, that Hollyn has that fellow cowboy boyfriend and Colie is a pretty serious Christian.
Scoring her picture with classical piano sonatas emphasizes the uncluttered beauty of the setting, in contrast with the work. Like a lot of “cowboying” documentarians, Mahdavian is content to sketch in these lives and simply observe two women at their jobs. She leaves the uncertain economics and ever-shortening future facing those who do it, even the way they do it (a single off-road four-wheeler, how many ranchers manage cattle these days, is see), to the imagination.
That’s where “Bitterbrush” resides, in the cowboying of memory and legend, a grueling gig of man-or-woman-handling beasts in glorious, simple solitude and some of the last unspoiled scenery in America.
Cast: Hollyn Patterson, Colie Moline
Credits: Directed by Emelie Mahdavian. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:30