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'Bitterbrush' is a sweeping, meditative view of life on the range

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Colie Moline is an Idaho cow herder in the film "Bitterbrush".

In the mountains of northern Idaho, two young women herd cattle in a new movie called Bitterbrush for the sagebrush-like plants that cover the dry lands below the peaks. KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz says Bitterbrush is a touching picture of solitude and the beauty of the natural world.

Emelie Mahdavian’s Bitterbrush, a portrait of two young women cow herders in Idaho, has been called a western. It has the basic elements of westerns – horses, a great western landscape and a couple of big sort-of cowboy hats. But other than that, not so much. It’s non-fiction; it doesn’t get into the great traditional themes of westerns – law and justice or race.  No six-guns here, no shootouts, no love story.

But it is about loneliness, connection with the wilderness, and herding cattle.

The two young women are – to my non-rancher eyes – capable cow-people. Colie Moline and Hollyn Patterson know their stuff, and watching them work is fascinating. They train a new horse and they are strong riders. They can lasso a cow.  They can handle an ax, to split firewood or break a salt block into pieces. They mend barbed wire fence.

Their job is to gather up cattle that have wandered in small groups all over high mountains in northern Idaho. The film starts in spring. They pack up a truck, load horses into a trailer and drive up to a remote cabin – where they will live and work until winter.  They’re called “range riders,” and the two have been doing this for five years. The movie follows them as they comfortably do their work and talk.

The music is Bach, not the usual musical accompaniment for films about herding cattle in the mountains. Director Emelie Mahdavian has said that it reflects the orderliness of the tasks Colie and Hollyn must do each day. The precise beauty of the score also heightens the visual sense of the wildness of mountains, just as Bitterbrush captures the beautiful contradiction of these two human beings on horseback in a setting that dwarfs the very idea of human beings in the wilderness.

Hollyn and Colie don’t limit their talk to cattle business. In the intimacy of their shared solitude, Colie, who’s mostly reserved in her conversation, describes holding her mother’s hands as she died. And the two women talk about what they each want to do next. This life attracts them for its beauty, but it’s not a life’s work. Hollyn wants a family; Colie isn’t sure.

For people who know ranching, the sight of two women doing this work may not be unusual, but it is for others, and either way, it’s lovely to watch. And for Colie and Hollyn, it’s just what they do, which adds to the charm of Bitterbrush.They don’t see themselves as breaking gender barriers or anything like that. Range riding comes to them naturally, and watching people who are good at their work is tremendously satisfying.

But maybe the great strength of Bitterbrush is its meditative picture of people in the wild. Just as Colie and Hollyn can’t rush their horses or the cattle, the movie takes the time to watch with wonderful patience. The camera observes the progress of a hundred or so cows as they make their way across a saddle in the hills – the black of the cows contrasts with the green of the bitterbrush. The duration of the shot gives it power. You feel the rhythm of the movement of the animals and people, and then you notice how the clouds and light fit into what is really an extraordinary dance of elements in this world.

Bitterbrush is not an environmentalist movie – cattle are not eco-friendly – but the film does rejoice – quietly – in the magnificence of the natural world. In its understated way, with these two modest, soft-spoken women, Bitterbrush values looking at the world instead of shouting about it.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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