Western | Review
Fractured Frontier: Ross Bros. Witness Bordertowns Running Afoul Under Threat of Storm Clouds & Cartels
The brothers Ross, Bill and Turner, have been rightly hailed as the new forerunners in the documentation of true blue Americana, picking up where their late idol Les Blank left off with poetic insta-vérité classics like 45365 and Tchoupitoulas. But it should be noted that since their humble beginnings the Ross brothers, though fascinated with the same kind southern small town culture that lines Blank’s oeuvre, have swapped out a Blank staple in culinary celebration for a shadowy focal point the allows the darker recesses of their subjects to seep into the frame.
Case in point: Tchoupitoulas revolves solely on a nighttime excursion into the illusory annals of New Orleans, while their deceptively rich web series River sees the filmmakers themselves travelling down the Mississippi from Cincinnati to New Orleans by ramshackle pontoon, stopping by night to socialize with the locals and witnessing an attempt by all to purge the troubles of life with the dark of night as their witness. Western, their latest in a series of documentary masterpieces, continues this trend, taking Americana even further into the shadows.
Shuttling us between the seemingly innocuous border towns of Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Mexico, the Ross brothers introduce us to a symbiotic relationship the neighboring communities have shared for decades increasingly under threat of cartel violence. The film centers around a pair of rugged men baptized in the iconography of the wild west of old – Chad Foster, the longtime mayor of Eagle Pass, and Martin Wall, a fifth-generation cattleman – both of whom’s very livelihoods have been put at risk as blood is shed and political pressure begins to mount over the safety of border crossings. They are men of wide social circles, well liked, and bearing before the camera a genuine love of their communities and the good people they share it with.
As the camera lingers on them in their day to day routines and the increasingly menacing metaphoric imagery – of thunderous storm clouds looming, the unspoken violence inherent in cattle ranching and bullfighting, or even Foster’s innocent young cowgirl daughter unaware of the potential consequences at hand – that swirls about the film, a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian seems to encapsulate the mood, “They were of men and animals and of the chase and there were curious birds and arcane maps and there were constructions of such singular vision as to justify every fear of man and the things that are in him.” The evils that threaten these men come under the cover of darkness from across borders and conjure fears thought long lost or out of reach. The vile brutalities that ruled the wild west it seems are still alive, and swelling with the sour smell of intimidation through elimination.
Wholly embracing the vérité aesthetic, the Ross brothers shoot seemingly everything, patiently awaiting those precious moments of poetic happenstance, yet each underscored moment remains essential to the nimble emotional narrative playing out within these allied desert towns. And despite the fact that a multitude of moments caught on tape seem like pure luck, there is ample evidence of the skill these filmmakers in bloom possess. Where moments were missed on screen, the narrative is ominously advanced through audio reports of the cartel violence that continues to creep closer to Piedras Negras. Western sees their eye for subtle symbolism and ear for poetic soundscapes pushing further into the affectingly abstract, masterfully guiding us along a forlorn tour of a west where the hopes and dreams promised by the American frontier have begun to dissolve in a flood of offscreen drug fueled bloodshed.
Reviewed on January 31st at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival – U.S Documentary Competition Programme. 93 Min.