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WESTERN (2015) review

January 8, 2016



written by: Dean Craig
produced by: Michael Gottwald, Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross
directed by: Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross
rating: unrated
runtime: 92 min.
U.S. release date: January 25, 2015 (Sundance) and January 8 & 14, 2016 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL)


Filmmakers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross – known as the Ross Brothers – are becoming the Coen Brothers of Americana documentaries. “Western” is their third doc, one which could decidedly be considered the third in a trilogy focusing on seldom-seen modern America. Their first film, “45365”, focused on small-town Ohio (where the brothers are from) and their last film was, “Tchoupitoulas,” which followed New Orleans night life. “Western” is an immersive look at two small towns along the Rio Grande River – Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras Niegras, Mexico – and how they have a history of sharing culture, business and friendship, which has been interrupted by the recent increase of violence from the Mexican cartel in Ciudad Acuña.

The Ross Bros. follow two main figures – former Eagle Pass mayor Chad Foster, best-known for his opposition to the federal border fence and cattle broker/importer Martín Wall, a descendant of a long line of traders who finds his business halted by the government sanctions that’ve responded to narco violence. It’s unclear how the directors – who also co-produced and served as cinematographers and editors – found their subjects or decided on their filming locations, but it’s clear the goal is to show every day life on the Texas-Mexico border. Their style is unobtrusive – placing the camera on the streets, in meeting rooms and along the winding river that separates the two towns – removing any trace of themselves from the subjects and environments they aim to present.




“Western” isn’t an indictment on cartel activity nor does it go out of its way to emphasize its violent acts. The film presents the violence as an interruption of bustling communities that would prefer to focus on bringing a synchronicity between the two towns. The bilingual Foster is seen as a trusted leader and mediator of both sides whose strength is that of a patient listener. His easy-going and humble demeanor assists him in dealing with a myriad of people – from those who want something of him to those naysayers who feel that harmony between the two towns is unobtainable.

Then there’s the barrell-chested Wall (also bilingual), who is often seen with his young daughter, Brylyn, bringing to light a devoted father side to the foul-mouthed cowboy. We sit in on conversations the two have – in her bedroom as he does her hair and in the car as he encourages her to get to know her Mexican classmates and embrace the Spanish language and culture. He mentions to her that his own name is Spanish and she can often be shadowing him as he manages the responsibilities of maintaining cattle.

Coverage of Foster and Wall, their families and the people they interact with feels real and authentic. Sure, this is a documentary, but the Ross Bros. have a knack for silently witnessing the world these men inhabit, what they experience and how they handle challenges. In many ways, it feels less like a documentary and more like a slice of life of on the border drama. It’s hard not to think of the brutality seen in recent films like “Cartel Land” and “Sicario” while watching “Western”.

As much as the two men do their best to go about their respective endeavors, their lives are often affected by violence that is beyond their control. At one point, Foster is even caught in cartel crossfire while lunching at a public Piedra Negras location. It’s a scene that’s seen and not heard, when the screen goes black and all we hear are voices and gunshots. Foster remained unflappable until the end, when he succumbed to cancer shortly after filming in 2012 – something that is never mentioned in the film. The mayor from across the river, Jose Manuel Maldonado, however, winds up dying in a mysterious plane crash over the Rio Grande. Wall’s business is crippled by the cartel concerns when the USDA slaps a ban on livestock trading between the towns, especially when inspectors and veterinarians end up taking permanent dirt naps along the border.

Stylistically, the filmmakers make a conscious decision to keep in mind the film’s title and show a modern-day functioning frontier on both sides of the river. Mariachi play their music, celebrations occur and fireworks explode above town fairs, while the Ross Bros. also linger on loud crows that teeters on barbed wire. At times, “Western” feels like a way of life that feels stuck in time, offering a straightforward observance of a determined people who will not let the fear and violence, prevent them from obtaining their goals.






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