'Western': Sundance Review
A fraternal documentarian duo explores the day-to-day life of a Texas border town.
Having painted a vibrant kid’s-eye-view of New Orleans in the lyrical Tchoupitoulas, sibling filmmakers Turner Ross and Bill Ross IV turn their incisive verité lens to material that’s grittier and more matter-of-fact, but no less revelatory. Western, their third documentary feature, is an eye-opening portrait of a Texas border town and its twin city in Mexico — a relationship defined by harmony but increasingly threatened by drug-cartel violence.
The film’s bracing ground-level truths, by turns hopeful and despairing, challenge Beltway anxieties about the “porousness” of the border and shake up preconceived notions about Americans’ relationships with their southern neighbors. A competition title at Sundance, Western is, like the directors’ previous picture, invigorated by a potent sense of place as well as an openhearted curiosity and compassion.
The doc’s three compelling protagonists are Chad Foster, mayor of Eagle Pass in Maverick County, Texas, and highly regarded on both sides of the border; burly cattle broker Martín Wall, whose century-old family ranching operation depends on business transactions across the Rio Grande; and Wall’s 6-year-old daughter, Brylyn Wall, a cutie-pie who’s already inured to the kind of ranch realities that will make many a city slicker in the audience squirm.
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The aptly named Foster, a down-to-earth charmer in a white cowboy hat, nurtures and promotes his city’s friendship withPiedras Negras, in the neighboring Mexican state of Coahuila. Their interdependence has been a welcome fact of life for many years, one that’s celebrated in a ceremony on the international bridge that connects the towns. “I hope that one day all the border will be like this,” a participant tells Foster.
But not everyone admires him; his opposition to federal plans to build a wall along the border makes him the target of hate mail. In his decidedly nonceremonial office, he reads one angry letter aloud, regarding it with ample doses of humor and equanimity, and paying particular attention to the phrase “traitor rat.”
The mayor’s innate sunniness is put to the test when one of the safest sections of the border begins to look like “the next Juarez,” as one newspaper puts it. In nearby Acuña, there are kidnappings and gruesome murders attributed to cartels, and a deadly accident involving a high-profile figure raises suspicions.
The Ross brothers, who share DP duties, capture expletive-laced and insightful discussions among Wall and other ranchers on the dangers before them, both real and exaggerated. Some, uneasy, explain that they’ve chosen to do business by phone rather than make the accustomed trips to Mexican cattle suppliers. But soon no one has a choice in the matter, with the U.S. government shutting the border and, in so doing, putting livelihoods on hold.
Wall’s skepticism is apparent as he listens to State Department reps justify the edict. His deeper fears, of long-term damage to a regional industry, surface in more private moments, even as he’s playful and attentive with Brylyn. (Because Brylyn’s mother barely figures in a film that excludes explanatory titles or narration, viewers might wonder whether Wall is a single father.)
Like the recent documentaries The Overnighters and The Great Invisible, Western brings federal and municipal policies down to the personal level, showing the day-to-day effects and vividly illustrating the gulf between working people’s realities and political contingencies.
As an exploration of a storied part of the American landscape and the national identity, the film reveals a border where Texans and Mexicans are united, rather than divided, by their languages and their enterprises. The Rosses are attuned to the physical expanse and the silences of ranch country. They’re alert to the ongoing shifts that leave Wall and his generation of ranchers uncertain that their way of life will endure. While old-timers pass their time in cafes, Brylyn wonders if she’ll leave Eagle Pass never to return, and doubt creeps into Mayor Foster’s vision of fellowship.
Both mariachi tunes and Methodist hymns are heard, and fully felt, in Western, and the movie itself has the feel of a high lonesome country song crossed with a narcocorrido — a piercing ballad about hard work, the business of living, and how not to get caught in the crossfire.
Production companies: Court 13
Featuring: Martín Wall, Brylyn Wall, Chad Foster
Directors: Turner Ross, Bill Ross IV
Producer: Michael Gottwald
Executive producers: Dan Janvey, Josh Penn, Libby Thompson, Bill King
Directors of photography: Turner Ross, Bill Ross IV
Editor: Bill Ross IV
Composer: Casey McAllister
No rating, 93 minutes