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Review: Western 

A documentary about tensions in two towns on the U.S.-Mexico border

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There's a violent storm brewing on the vast horizon in Western, a documentary about life on the Texas-Mexico border by New Orleans-based filmmakers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross. The famously volatile west Texas weather provides a handy metaphor for the violence of Mexican drug cartels, which threatens to engulf the sister cities of Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras Negras, Mexico.

  But the Ross brothers didn't set out to make a topical documentary about social issues or immigration politics. They were searching for a 21st-century vision of the mythic American West, a place that continues to thrive in our collective imagination as an open frontier with unlimited possibilities. They found a region and a time-honored way of life suddenly under siege. Ironically, that threat allows the keenly observed Western to echo the mythic West familiar from novels and movies — a place where the impending loss of the frontier to "progress" always looms on the horizon.

  Using fly-on-the-wall techniques developed over the course of two previous regionally themed features (45365 and Tchoupitoulas), the Ross brothers offer a unique immersive experience in Western. The focus is on two Texans, beloved larger-than-life Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster and local rancher Martin Wall, a single father taking care of a spirited young daughter who represents the future of the region. Each is largely defined by symbiotic relationships with counterparts across the Rio Grande.

  As mayor, Foster defends the shared economic and cultural riches enjoyed for generations by the people of Eagle Pass and neighboring Piedras Negras. Wall's family has brought cattle over the bridge from Mexico for sale in the U.S. for more than a century. Regional violence resulting from turf wars between rival Mexican drug cartels — along with security measures considered by the U.S. government in response to that threat — may destroy the delicate balance of life in the borderlands.

  Western's impressionistic view of the region's life and culture encompasses rodeos, bullfights, fiestas and festivals along with small, private moments shared by cattle hands on the ranch or old friends at the local diner. The film has no discernible agenda other than to deliver an honest portrait of a particular time and place. In its finest moments, it generates a uniquely subjective form of artistic representation not often found in documentaries.

  In one memorable scene late in the film, the camera pans back and forth across a gathering — like an anonymous partygoer turning from side to side — between a group of men discussing in Spanish the impending threat from cartel violence and a trio of women, obviously old friends, dancing together to a live mariachi band. A barely decipherable snippet of dialogue from the men (translated as "something's bad ... something's strange") contrasts eerily with the joyous dancing of the women and speaks volumes about the current state of life on the border. A truckload of experts analyzing the threat of cartel violence in Eagle Pass wouldn't add a thing to the scene.

  Using the same relatively low-tech HD camera on each of their first three films, the Ross brothers developed a grainy, gritty visual style that looks a lot like 16mm film and suits their observational aesthetic. But even production values seem a minor concern in the face of Western's multifaceted and profoundly human drama.


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