Borderline Personalities: Western

western

Western
Directed by Bill and Turner Ross
Opens September 25 at IFC Center

An even-keel elegy about a border under progressive lockdown, Bill and Turner Ross’s documentary Western camps out for a few seasons in the low-key locale of Eagle Pass, Texas, where small talk is a big pastime. The town has always been on good terms with its neighbor on the other side of the Rio Grande, the considerably more populous Piedras Negras, but as the film opens, the skies have begun to darken over the regular shows of municipal goodwill between the two communities: a fence has divided them, and cartel carnage threatens to sunder them yet further.

Here, the Ross brothers—who made 2009’s 45635, about their Ohio hometown, and 2012’s Tchoupitoulas, about New Orleans after dark—continue to study the pomp of public ritual (bullfights, rodeos, and various other civic photo-ops), but the title Western is less an expanded-regionalism claim than a joke about the film’s subjects. These men might well have swaggered right out of that tried-and-true genre of fiction. The upright Chad Foster conducts his business as mayor of Eagle Pass from underneath a cowboy hat, and often in a Spanish so fluid that it hides his otherwise booming drawl; the prodigiously foul-mouthed Martín Wall, meanwhile, is more literally a cowboy, a cattle broker (and devoted father) whose livelihood depends upon frequent border crossings. During the Ross’s year-plus residency in Eagle Pass, that border closes for a time due to criminal activity in Acuña, sixty miles up the river, and Wall is left with nothing to do but sit around and stew. Most of his griping—as well as more circumspect comments by vocal Secure Fence Act opponent Foster—is about the out-of-touch response by grandstanding politicians in the capitals, not the narco violence itself. (The prevailing conversational tone on the latter topic is concerned but helplessly resigned.)

If this terrain is becoming more and more imperiled—and more and more politicized—before our very eyes, it’s no less beautiful for it, and the Rosses certainly recognize that. In Western, shot between 2010 and 2011, they dutifully log a steady drumbeat of bad news (the soundtrack excerpts numerous radio reports, and the film tracks the fallout from such events as the plane-crash death of the mayor of Piedras Negras), but they don’t let it dictate the film’s internal rhythm—their priority is conveying a fugitive sense of a time in a place, not in establishing a steady chronology, and thus the scenery on display is not mere transitional filler. Their digital camera, which appears to be near consumer-grade, does nothing to diminish the quiet grandeur of the Eagle Pass environs. The unassumingly active skies play a particularly prominent supporting role: sunsets bleed out over the desert, and thunderheads annex the horizon. One particularly striking kid’s-eye-view silhouettes Chad and his 10-gallon crown from behind as he gazes up at a fairground fireworks display.

Western, which won a special prize at Sundance for “vérité filmmaking” (a term which doesn’t really do justice to the sly bonhomie of its setup), easily weighs in as the best of the Rosses’ three features—and it only grows more poignant in retrospect. The filmmakers forgo final where-are-they-now title cards, but the World Wide Web reveals the one-of-a-kind Foster died not long after the Rosses packed up and left Texas, at the age of 63. As for Martín Wall, one can only imagine that the intervening years haven’t made his life any easier.

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