The Western is a stringently gendered genre — if you’re asked to imagine cattle rustlers out on the plain, well, there’s a reason they’re called cowboys. The new documentary Bitterbrush defies that script, though in a very quiet and matter-of-fact way. Set on the open range of Idaho, it follows two friends, Colie and Hollyn, as they drive a herd of beef cattle over a summer. With no one but each other, the cattle, and their pack of dogs as company, the two women talk about their pasts, their hopes for the future, and not much in particular in between periods of grueling work and stretches of simple wonder at the majestic countryside.
There’s a tinge of the bittersweet to the film as well, not just because of the pervasive sense of solitude, but also because director Emilie Mahdavian and her crew tagged along with the duo during their final summer together on the range. They’ve both been getting by with seasonal work, but they need something more stable if they’re to move on to the next stages of their lives. Hollyn in particular is ready for something new, as she finds out she’s pregnant early in the season. (By happenstance, Mahdavian was also pregnant early in production, and gave birth quite close to Hollyn learning about her own pregnancy. Again, no message is overtly delivered, but that shared and highly specific liminal, transitional stage of life feels like it’s seeped into the movie’s vibe.) Many great Westerns are about endings — traditionally evoking melancholy over the closing of “the frontier” and other finishes to problematically imagined eras in the settler-colonial mythos of the US. Here the ending is much simpler, more intimate and personal, but impactful in its own way.
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It almost goes without saying that a documentary shot amid the mountains of the west captures some gorgeous imagery, and indeed, Mahdavian and her crew are present for some truly breathtaking moments. In particular, late-film sequences set against the snowy vistas of the oncoming fall occasion some striking compositions, setting the two leads’ small forms against vast, sparse landscapes that seem to threaten to swallow them up like manifestations of the unknown future.
Bitterbrush is also a low-key but enthralling example of the simple pleasure you can get just from watching someone perform a complex task with assured competence. That’s present from the opening scene, in which Hollyn and Colie confidently and calmly calm a rowdy horse. (It is also in no small part about the relationships between humans and their working animal companions.) An evocative swan song for two women who have to move on to other things, Bitterbrush makes for a satisfyingly different kind of Western.
Bitterbrush is now playing in select theaters and will be available on VOD June 24.