“Western,” the third installment in the Ross Brothers’ Americana trilogy, is decidedly of a piece with its predecessors, “45365” and “Tchoupitoulas,” which are portraits of a small town in Ohio, and New Orleans at night, respectively. The three films are immersive experiences, and feel lived-in in a way that reveals the pair’s ability to meld into the fabric of the place itself in order to capture their subjects. It’s apparent that they got to know their subjects and environment so well in the process of making “Western” that what appears onscreen is the symbiotic relationship of filmmaker and material. The result is a film that truly captures the essence of a place, and creates an experience of it for the viewer.
“Tchoupitoulas” was a heady and intoxicating brew of NOLA nightlife that washed over the audience in sort of a hypnotic mist. “Western” is not that, because the place, as a subject, is not that. Eagle Pass, Texas sits on top of the Texas-Mexico border, and has long shared friendship, culture, and business with its neighboring Mexican town, Piedras Negras. Mayor Chad Foster strives for an atmosphere of friendship and teamwork between the two towns, and it’s clear that this notion is ingrained in the shared cultural history there. The border seems porous, with people, music, language, and cattle freely flowing between the two towns and nations.
Despite Foster’s work towards amicability and partnership, he can’t control the creeping tide of violence from the Mexican drug cartels that get closer and closer to Piedras Negras, and therefore, closer to Eagle Pass. While it is a legitimate threat, some of the subjects allude to the opportunistic nature of the decisions made by government higher ups in Washington and Austin, who could possibly be using these events to shut down the border, stopping trade and business. Martín Wall, a cattle trader descended from a long line of Eagle Pass traders, crosses the border constantly to import cattle, and sees his business effectively shut down by government sanctions in response to reports of narco violence.
Martín is the true essence of a cowboy: a man who wears his boots and cowboy hat for function, not fashion. Wrangling cattle has been in the family blood for nearly a hundred years, and it’s the only thing that he knows how to do. When the business dries up, his fears about the future are embodied for him in his young daughter, Brylyn, a scrappy, round-cheeked wee one to whom Martín is fully devoted. He encourages her to learn more about her Mexican classmates in school, to embrace Spanish, as Martín’s own name is Spanish, he speaks the language (the town seems virtually bilingual) and bellows along with the Mexican mariachi ballads at a ranch party. The Walls (and Foster) are comfortable, unaffected, and at ease in front of the camera. Their authenticity permeates the film, allowing the reality of their experiences to come through.
“Western” has a clearer political storyline than the other films in the trilogy, but that is not to assert that the film strongly sets an agenda of any kind. It’s simply a portrait of a town that has long existed in the nexus of shared culture, and thrives on small town values, including friendship over fear. The towns are too small, and too close to each other not do so. And yet, time and politics marches on, and decisions are made to allocate money towards shutting down the border, rather than any other kind of community enhancing initiative. The political positions are clear in the film, insofar as the subjects and characters make their personal beliefs clear; the Ross brothers only agenda is to showcase the experience of life in a town such as this, whose neighbors to the south are more immediate and therefore more important than the policy makers in Washington.
“Western,” stylistically, is an easygoing ride in a well-worn, dusty saddle, trafficking in the traditional archetypes of the genre, while also staying true to the place itself. Gorgeous cinematography captures fire in the sky from sunrise to sunset, and fireworks that pepper the night during the frequent town fairs and celebrations. Visual themes return and build on themselves, from the crows that the camera lingers on, their coming and going a passage of time as much as any, to the cattle that rule the town. The film often focuses on the intimate relationship this cowboy town has with cattle: as units of currency, as animals that must be cared for and also violently killed, and as symbols of a shared history and culture, from the rodeo to the bull fighting ring.
Seen through the lens of the Americana trilogy, one can more deeply understand the themes and filmmaking approach of the Ross brothers, but “Western” stands on its own, too. As the culminating film in the trilogy, it feels the most advanced. With a more straightforward through-line of story, though it remains in the observational and unobtrusive mode of the prior films, the Ross brothers have essentially embedded themselves in a place to seek out its truth. In “Western,” the filmmaking philosophy remains the same, but the subject is new and different, and the storytelling is deeper, nuanced, and honed by experience. [A-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.