Review: Western (Ross & Ross, 2015) – SFIFF 2015


Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Brothers Bill and Turner Ross went to Texas looking to make a “modern Western.” What they found was a tale of two cities: Eagle Pass, TX, and Piedras Negras, MX. In an era of mounting tension over drug violence and undocumented immigration, the two neighboring towns, separated by just the Rio Grande, seemed to demonstrate a rare, collaborative peace.

The documentary, which earned a Special Jury Prize for Vérité Filmmaking at Sundance, follows two residents of Eagle Pass who epitomize the relationship between the two cities, as well as their mutual dependency. Chad Foster is the city’s good-natured mayor, a white, non-Hispanic man who speaks Spanish with ease and is loved and respected by all his constituents–even those in Piedras Negras who are not actually his constituents. Martin Wall is a cattle rancher who shuttles cattle back and forth across the border and lectures his young daughter Brylyn about the importance of learning Spanish.

Immersed in their idyllic lives, both men are at first sanguine about the prospects of their city, even as drug violence begins to consume other areas along the border. But, in the middle of filming, warring between the rival Zeta and Sinaloa cartels spills into Piedras Negras. Soon after, Foster’s Mexican counterpart, mayor Jose Manuel Maldonado, dies in a mysterious plane crash, and Foster himself experiences a close scrape with violence.

Wall, too, is affected when the USDA shuts down trade, indefinitely, at certain border areas, fearing for the safety of its veterinary inspectors. We are treated to images of the hulking, energetic man brooding in eerily empty cattle pens as his men lounge around, restlessly waiting.

The Ross brothers’ immersive, vérité-style filmmaking puts the audience right in the action–or, oftentimes, the inaction. The truth is that most of the violence is occurring on the other side of the border, in Piedras Negras. The temporary shuttering of Wall’s business, Foster’s close call feel slight compared to the regular slayings in Eagle Pass’s sister city. The film’s tension, then, derives from the threat of violence, the idea that it could touch us.

Which is bigger than it sounds, desensitized as we are by the crush of headlines. One can’t help walking away from the film feeling that history is littered with people just trying to live their lives, people we rarely hear from for longer than the span of a radio or TV interview, until someone, such as the Ross brothers, finally decides to take a longer look.

We don’t know if Eagle Pass does anything to “help” its friend Piedras Negras or, indeed, if anything could have been done. Unlike All of Me, Western is not a tribute to people helping others. It is a document of abrupt change coming to a slow, sleepy place, catching it unawares. The new normal unsettles Foster and Wall; disbelief gives way to unease.

The virtue of the Rosses’ style of storytelling is that it is subtle. Filled with moments of quiet, the film allows for scenes to unfold without dialogue or exposition. As a result, the narrative feels revealed rather than constructed or even sought. The tradeoff is that Western might feel too slow for some. But the reward? A precious authenticity.