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HomeEntertainment‘Bitterbrush’ Review: Alone on the Range

‘Bitterbrush’ Review: Alone on the Range

Through countless tales of frontier justice and stoic machismo, the western genre has been an American mythos machine. In “Bitterbrush,” Emelie Mahdavian’s becalmed documentary, the grand vistas and cattle roundups inevitably recall a western or two (at least to this city slicker). But in following two young women employed as range riders in Idaho, the film presents its own modern-day picture of hard work and camaraderie.

Hollyn Patterson and Colie Moline are essentially freelancers under contract to look after cattle on the open range. They’re usually the only two humans visible for miles, and their West isn’t a metaphor: It’s a workplace with open skies and rolling hills, and a cabin to bunk down in. Logistics is most of the job — how to get hundreds of cows (and the herd dogs that accompany them) from here to there, what tactics to use for “starting” a colt (training for the saddle).

Each task takes as long as it takes, and is carried out with easy banter (Hollyn’s sense of humor is pleasantly goofy) and mutual care. Challenges are taken in stride without much fuss (nor much fuss about not making a fuss). One of the most emotional moments occurs at the campfire when Colie recalls the hands of her deceased mother — an achingly beautiful scene that almost takes the film by surprise (and has echoes in the close-ups on both women’s hands as they wrangle wire, a scene or two later).

Scored with Bach, the film nearly resists drama. Hollyn and Colie’s experiences impress not as a spectacle but as a memory of a few seasons, with a wistful touch, before each moved on to her next station in life.

Bitterbrush
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. In theaters.

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