Pretty, Dull Documentary Bitterbrush Rustles the Realities of Cattle RaidingMovies Reviews documentaries
It’s hard to hear the term “range rider” and not immediately think of gruff, macho characters like Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, or John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River. But documentarian Emelie Mahdavian challenges those outdated preconceptions in Bitterbrush.
Cattle-hands Colie Moline and Hollyn Patterson embark on a two-month job on a secluded mountain range in Idaho. Over the course of 90 minutes, we see the women navigate their dilapidated living quarters, herd hundreds of cows, attempt to tame a wild horse, live off meager meals of bread and tuna spread, and reflect on their arduous, unorthodox lifestyle.
Throughout Bitterbrush, we become privy to the most intimate—and often mundane—realities of Colie and Hollyn’s everyday life. And though one might expect something thrilling to eventually occur, (this is the unsparing wilderness after all), nothing ever does; as the film plays out, it becomes increasingly apparent that Mahdavian was secretly hoping for something dramatic to transpire. Bitterbrush therefore plays out as something of a waiting game. When Colie and Hollyn attempt to tame an unruly horse, Mahdavian remains in that moment for just a little too long, as if she’s holding out for some conflict or catharsis that never comes. The audience is asked to watch a number of anticlimactic, inconsequential moments for just a little too long, which ends up dull.
Where Mahdavian doesn’t uncover dramatic moments during the women’s work days, she attempts to draw them out on their time off. Off camera, she presumably asks them to discuss the hardships and adversities they have faced, as well as the traumatic moments of their pasts, because, on camera, Hollyn talks about the death of her beloved dog, and Colie recalls her mother’s passing.
While these monologues are poignant and affecting—particularly when Colie reminisces on her hard-working mother’s interminably delicate hands—their placement often feels haphazard and forced. Mahdavian and her crew are not present at all in Bitterbrush, and while this fly-on-the-wall method certainly compliments the film’s isolated subject matter, to pull it off completely, the two women must direct these monologues at each other. This feels inorganic and disingenuous, if only because we can assume that, after years and years of knowing one another, Colie and Hollyn have already told each other these stories. Besides, we know in our hearts that Mahdavian most likely prompted the stories herself.
The most interesting thing about these women isn’t their personal histories, but their experiences as women in the overwhelmingly male-dominated cattle-raiding field. Despite this, we don’t end up learning much about the processes of their actual job, which almost defeats the purpose of examining the intimacies of the profession altogether. I didn’t find myself coming out of Bitterbrush with much sense of Colie and Hollyn’s daily timetables or methodologies.
What does work about Bitterbrush, though, are the segments where Mahdavian leans into the subtle, serene beauty of the American Intermountain West. Against a luscious Bach piano score, Derek Howard and Alejandro Mejía’s cinematography evokes the wide-screen, idyllic landscapes of Ang Lee and Kelly Reichardt films. Shots of cows harmoniously grazing the mountainside, or the women surveying lonesome snowy terrain, are exquisite and effortless, and end up being much more touching than any of the personal soliloquies. With the help of editor Curtiss Clayton, Mahdavian also establishes a melodic, enticing rhythm. When we watch Colie and Hollyn tie a lasso or ride a horse, it seems to be something that’s simply in their bones. Similarly, when we survey their Wild West surroundings, it couldn’t possibly feel more natural, as if reminding us that this was how we were supposed to live all along.
This perspective is extra fascinating when juxtaposed with the main thesis of the film: Our society perceives this lifestyle as odd, especially if you are a woman. Colie and Hollyn don’t skirt around the fact that they are going against the grain. Colie says that she wishes she had a wife to take care of the housework, drawing attention to the fact that she’s strayed far, far away from typical gender roles. These women have chosen lives at once exceedingly natural and deeply unconventional. If only Mahdavian had delved into the nitty-gritty of that, and not attempted to fabricate something more cinematic. Then she would have uncovered a true masterpiece.
Director: Emelie Mahdavian
Stars: Colie Moline, Hollyn Patterson
Release Date: June 17, 2022
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.