Maybe the reason Bill and Turner Ross named their recent documentary “Western” is because the film, which is set in Texas, is the manifestation of the allure and conflicts that represent contemporary western life. Maybe it is also because the film takes the form of a narrative feature, despite being a documentary. there are many instances where shot-reverse shot techniques are used for conversations. Point of view shots also demonstrate classic style adhering to continuity editing. Even recurring motifs of a certain unknown character driving on a road and scoping out the landscape seems to mark certain plot points that suggests a tight structure similar to a fiction film. Watching “Western,” it is hard not to come up with what type of film it is. It is certainly a documentary but just as certainly not cinema verite. Interesting couplings of words come to mind such as an anthropological drama and observational narrative. “Western” is powerful and bewildering stemming from its subtle and stinging content depicted in a revealing structure of plot and character development.
Set in the area constituting Eagle Pass, Texas and its sister town, Piedras Negras, which are only separated by the Rio Grande, the filmmakers follow the bilingual and caring mayor of Eagle Pass, Charles Foster, a cattleman who buys all of his cattle in Mexico to sell in the US, Martin (a mark on his ‘i’ since it is a Hispanic name), and his young daughter, Brylyn and her upbringing among men and cattle. Foster mentions to someone early on that living in the multinational community is just, “another day in paradise.” He may be right. Everyone seems to know both English and Spanish and events are a mixture of Texas tradition and Mexican flare. Simultaneously, the people form both towns actively engage in the maintenance of such a compassionate lifestyle and express pride in such engagement, a counterculture going against what politicians and the media illustrate on our Facebook newsfeed and on television. Yet, if this is to be a bubble of utopian camaraderie, then closely outside such a bubble is the realization that fear and turmoil is ready to boil over as the drug war in Mexico intensifies and Washington D.C. becomes exponentially fearful of the Mexican individual.
Such a change is visualized in simplistic profundity as Foster must assume an ever tricker role as mayor and Martin is virtually out of a job since he cannot get his cattle from his supplier anymore. As fear builds so do the walls and in a series of calculated shots, the construction vehicles erecting the wall become a frustrating invasion of fear into a community that wanted none of it. In addition, a leitmotif takes the form of news radio highlighting all of the murders that seemed to be happening closer and closer to Piedras Negras due to a drug war; inevitability seems to slowly tighten its grip. The main characters’ arcs are heard through their ever hesitant dialogue but the Ross brothers incorporate an almost surreal illustration of traditional perceptions of the psychological change they endure to adapt. One scene is a shot behind Foster’s head as he looks up at the gaudy spectacle of fireworks in the warm, night sky. It was a moment of ironic celebration, one that speaks more to a farewell of a stolen ideal than anything else as Foster makes a hard decision that is anything but positive.
Other images stand out, like the scene where Brylyn watches her father gut a dead cow. It is disturbing both literally and metaphorically, as the forced attendance of watching the devastation of the animal is similar to her and her father’s forced involvement with the devastation of their ideal Eden. A lot of these moments are driven by a longing score that serves as a nostalgic dirge.
Returning back to the formal approach, one that lends more of its influence from narrative fiction syntax, this critic finds that at some points, due probably more to obsessive questioning and curiosity, there were times where the such cinematic techniques and the means of their achievement outweighs the construction of certain scenes. The logistics to film certain events and conversations always induced wondering questions about how they shot the film. Maybe it has to do with unfamiliarity, which this critic admits as this is the first Ross brothers film seen. Another film of theirs, “Tchoupitoulas,” chronicles the journey of three brothers in a post-Katrina New Orleans with similar narrative tropes. In due time, comfort will come upon repeated viewings and the strength of this film, the topical immediacy that it holds demanding viewing in our time, will remain in harmony with the formal approach the filmmaker’s choose. This is a great film, just one that is as bewildering as it is tragically beautiful; a document of a group of people who function off their open-mindedness end up coming to terms with the close-minded world around them.