STUDIO: MAGNOLIA PICTURES
"In the remote and rugged mountains of the American West, two young women contemplate the future as they work alone herding cattle."
OUR MOVIE REVIEW:
There has always been an interest in the mysterious and hard history of the American frontier. Way of life during the wild west era is intriguing, its expansive undeveloped landscapes of desert, mountains, and fields, but also for its outlaw characteristic. The territory known as the American West due to it being west of the Great Plains region, makes for a never-ending mining of stories. Ranging from fiction to nonfiction, these tales whether they be literature, films, or a television series made up the original style of Westerns. This genre within film and eventually tv landscape experienced its most popular period from the 1930s to the 1960s. Movie theaters and television viewers were ripe with options to have their fix regarding the western way of life, but ultimately Westerns hit their peak as the 70s rolled in. Since then, the genre seems to rear its head every 10-15 years. As the 90s began, again Westerns saw a substantial comeback in film, television, and made for TV movies. Recently, with the popularity of quality prestige television series, once again having risen with the Paramount+ and Taylor Sheridans’ Yellowstone, the behemoth hit series starring Kevin Costner, has topped the charts every season. This has caused an influx of other properties trying to capitalize on the drawing power of that audience. Mostly, Westerns are notoriously driven by a male lead. However, Emelie Maldivians’ documentary Bitterbrush is not your grandparents' Western. In fact, it has little concern in playing into any of the common stereotypes of the genre. This Western documentary showcases two women at the forefront, who are hired hands that are as much a cowboy as your grandparents' ideal John Wayne.
The documentary's title Bitterbrush actually refers to a plant for wildlife. An integral part of rangeland restoration, it's a tenacious plant found in the wild areas of the American West. As you can probably see, Bitterbrush is not about the actual plant, instead referencing its tenacious and withstanding nature. A fitting attribution as we are introduced to Colie and Hollyn, the hired hands (short-term manual workers) who's next four Summer months of rounding up cattle are being documented. As glamorous as the heart of a cowboy or ranching has been portrayed before, it's clear, at least within the context of Bitterbrush, that is not usually the case. Early in the film shows a good representation of this. As Colie and Hollyn arrive at the cabin they will stay at for the Summer, they unload and start cleaning the run down cabin suitable to their needs. It's during this where they mention this being the nicest cabin they have stayed in so far. Even though the work may not be as glamorous as it sometimes has led people to believe, the individuals that do this kind of arduous job love it. Colie and Hollyn exemplifying this in the scene, following them getting settled in as they discuss how excited they are to get started despite how much work lies ahead of them.
One of the most striking aspects of Bitterbrush is the cinematography by Derek Howard and Alejandro Mejía. The mountainous, rocky terrain is vast and gorgeous to witness, but even more incredible in how Howard and Meija have captured it. As the camera follows, Colie and Hollyn, on several outings on the range wrangling cattle throughout the film. Towards the end of their Summer, a mild snow-storm hits as they make their way back and it's a beautifully simple yet effective cinematic shot as the camera stays fixed on them as they ride through. Another sequence involves the routine of breaking a horse so that it can be ridden. A stunning sequence to watch as director Emelie Maldivian shows off the entire task. Excellently shot as the film is, the documentary stumbles to accomplish what it sets out to do. Bitterbrush wants to show how women can do this line of work that has been dominated by men for generations. The film succeeds in this aspect, where it fumbles is in showing the process of the work being done. Aside from the one horse-breaking scene mentioned, all that's displayed of their duties is cattle wrangling. I would imagine that, like myself, even uninformed viewers will find it hard to believe that there isn't more involved. The film attempts to make up for this lacking, by including a scene where Colie and Hollyn are eating dinner around a campfire as each discusses a personal story about one another to provide some personal history context. For this method to be beneficial, you need more than essentially one scene that applies it. Instead, what's provided doesn't amount to much. There is no real justification for it being included when it's not expounded upon more during the film.
Although Bitterbrush doesn't brush up on being, all that it aims to be, the conclusive result is still a beautiful film to observe. We get to witness some of the lives that Colie and Hollyn lead, with no proper home, with each changing season going job to job. Choosing to do such strenuous work in a male-dominated field is easy to appreciate and be inspired by. Unfortunately, the film ends up feeling more like a sightseeing tour. One that is more so a cursory guided route, then a saddled-in ride that provides vast insight into the life of ranching and wrangling led by female perspectives.