Herding cattle is a woman’s work in Emelie Mahvadian’s meditative “Bitterbrush,” a picturesque documentary that embraces the sweeping tradition of the Western genre. The brawny job comes naturally to the nomadic Hollyn Patterson and Colie Moline, two close friends who are seasonal range riders for hire in the remote American West, cowgirling their way from one temporary job to the next, deep through the mountains and prairies of the Idaho terrain. Think of John Ford vistas by way of Kelly Reichardt’s lyricism, soulfully underscored by Bach, and you’ll be roughly in Mahvadian’s vicinity.
Through an assured sense of rhythm and a compact narrative field, the filmmaker tracks the young women’s journey through a 4-month gig — starting one spring, lasting till the snowfalls of the early fall — during which the duo have to drive hundreds of beef cattle over a ridge, while living away from their loved ones and things like cell coverage most city dwellers take for granted. But they seem completely unbothered by the impending hardships, inconveniences and perhaps even danger — an old, understocked log cabin and less-than-ideal weather conditions among them. They’ve been braving this together for five or six years already (neither of them can quite remember), and they can’t wait to hit the ground running again.
Hollyn and Colie are pros, though the ease with which they handle animals and elements alike doesn’t make their image in the saddle any less provocative while they shoulder the type of labor most imagine men doing. What’s more provocative is the fact that Mahvadian doesn’t seem all too preoccupied with hammering on this obvious point. Instead, she asks the audience to accept and relax into this uncommon world and reality fast, while the girls settle into their brand-new stint and accommodations alongside their herd of sometimes unruly livestock and a crowded pack of sweetly overeager dogs.
With a quick walkthrough of their modest cabin, Hollyn and Colie learn that the stove works, but the toilet needs repairing. They unpack supplies. They frequently bicker and banter like an old married couple, teasing each other with an earned sense of intimate, deadpan humor. Their chemistry as friends and business partners is so authentic that you sometimes forget that there’s a camera present as they talk about the past, contemplate life and a future of unknowns.
In a pair of the film’s most touching moments, the women converse on different shades of grief. Hollyn retells how she once couldn’t decide where to scatter the ashes of one of her deceased canine companions due to a constantly on-the-move life that lacks a home base. Colie, meanwhile, recalls her mom’s final days in the hospital, a period that allowed her to study and memorize the shape of her hands.
Most times though, you are acutely aware of the camera, thanks to cinematographers Derek Howard and Alejandro Mejía’s breathtaking work, which begs for the big screen. While the beauty of the off-the-grid wild at their disposal would be impossible to miss or downplay for any camera, the duo’s lens unearths more than sheer prettiness, seizing something wistful, even restorative in its grandeur. In other words, they see this world from the eyes of Hollyn and Colie, neither of whom seem jaded about the setting in which they operate. On more than one occasion, whether on horseback or around campfires, the young women articulate their love for the wild and a profession that lets them be one with it.
Naturally, it’s not only the green pastures Hollyn and Colie see. In addition to familial pressures and physical demands of the job, the women expressly worry about what’s ahead in an unpredictable line of increasingly unsustainable work. “Equipment these days is not meant for the little guy,” one of them says in contemplative frustration about the expense of everything only big corporations can afford. Still, they hold onto their own slice of dreams. For Colie, it’s being her own boss one day. For Hollyn, who discovers that she’s pregnant during filming, it’s providing for her family. “I can live with barely anything, but you can’t live like I do with a baby,” she reflects.
Despite these worries, the women honor their present against stunningly majestic backdrops with inspiring dedication, free of conflict. As seen through Mahvadian’s observational and unobtrusive perspective (thankfully not littered by interviews or excessive title cards), their work is always tough, often soothing, sometimes dangerous and perennially rewarding. In a memorable sequence in the middle of “Bitterbrush,” Mahvadian patiently watches the women as they try to break a stubborn horse they name Marilyn (after Monroe) due to her star-like attitude. It’s a moment both magnificent and symbolic, synonymous with the untamed spirits Mahvadian’s film captures as they put up a fight to adapt to whatever life throws at them.