Hopefully the cows like it.
While they don’t know it yet, this is the end of a five-plus year partnership range riding together in the American Pacific Northwest for friends Colie Moline and Hollyn Patterson. It’s also their most comfortable after trading the usual camper for an old cabin this summer. With only themselves and a crew of herd dogs for assistance, they take to the Idahoan plains in search of the beef cattle and calves they’ve been contracted to reclaim. The work is tiring and tenuous as far as consistency, but also spiritually and physically rewarding if not financially. Colie and Hollyn have grown close with an easy rapport and trust that allows director Emelie Mahdavian and us a glimpse into their personal lives, thoughts, and aspirations. It’s western living sans artifice.
Bitterbrush won’t be for everyone as a result. Beautiful landscapes and endearing lead duo aside, there’s not much here as far as narrative thrust beyond the task at-hand. This is a full year condensed into ninety-minutes consisting of labor over insight. I would have liked more instances like a campfire conversation where Colie speaks about her mother’s passing or the two waxing on about whether it’s better to change up the scenery each year or keep things familiar, but I get why Mahdavian chooses to utilize that stuff as accompaniment rather than the main course. She wants to give these expert cowhands a showcase and us a window into a life we can’t begin to fathom. It’s about what these women are doing more than who they are.
And that’s intriguing enough. From finding cattle in the open expanse to yelling at the dogs to do their jobs as the cows buck back to breaking a new colt, this is the job in all its strenuous splendor. We get a few little moments of humor such as Colie’s hatred of corned beef hash or Hollyn’s frustration with a horse that doesn’t want to comply, but so much of our investment arrives via curiosity towards the craft. There’s the real-time lassoing, hogtying, and medicating of a cow and that extensive colt breaking with flags, blankets, ropes, and saddles that seem to go on forever. The patience Holly and Colie show is unparalleled and yet it seems to come so naturally as a necessary part of the task.
Being able to enjoy the scenery is a bonus, especially once the weather turns. It’s great to hear the women discuss an incoming storm by the shift of light before donning their winter coats as the snow starts to fall. They look so cold that I wonder if Mahdavian and the camera operators bundled up warmer or went with the solidarity of braving the elements like their subjects. Not that Hollyn and Colie would necessarily change anything. They’ve been doing this so long that they know how many layers are needed and when warmth becomes counter-intuitive to riding. It’s therefore no coincidence that their on-screen journey holds little to no drama. They could do these insanely difficult actions in their sleep. Mahdavian doesn’t have to manufacture embellished conflict.
We simply enjoy the vibes and atmosphere on its own terms. We watch these women do their thing with full confidence and expertise to keep it light and entertaining. Maybe that won’t be enough for some, but it’s definitely enough for the work to be a success. It’s a slice of life wherein the place and people exist out of time and space. We don’t need to know their history to know who they are right now on this range. Mahdavian gives us enough for context and motivation before letting Colie and Hollyn take over with their enthusiasm and love for nature and this opportunity to absorb it on a level very few people can. Because it won’t last. Life will interfere. So, embrace the awe without regrets.
 Hollyn Patterson and Colie Moline in BITTERBRUSH, a Magnolia Pictures release. © Alejandro Mejia, AMC. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
 A scene from BITTERBRUSH, a Magnolia Pictures release. © Alejandro Mejia, AMC. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.