“Welcome to Paradise,” reads a sign just above the desk of Chad Foster, the Mayor of Eagle Pass, Texas, a border town that sits right across from Piedras Negras, Mexico with only the Rio Grande River in between. His skin tanned and weathered, you could hardly tell which country he’s from when he’s first introduced in Turner and Bill Ross’ fourth feature “Western,” speaking Spanish to a couple of women in his office who lavish him with praise for being the only people capable of bringing the two communities together. Not long after, you see Foster’s dream realized as a parade makes its way through Eagle Pass, complete a marching band playing Mariachi music and a young woman sitting atop a float wearing a tiara in a scene that would seem to belong 1950s Americana if she weren’t surrounded by other kids of many different ethnicities.
It’s just one of many moments in “Western” that tells an entire story within a scene, a gift that the Ross Brothers have cultivated from their first film about their hometown in Ohio, “45365,” onward. After traveling to New Orleans for the dreamlike “Tchoupitoulas,” they’ve returned with a third chapter in what they’ve dubbed their “Americana” trilogy, perhaps less formally adventurous than their previous efforts, but also more skilled with the strongest narrative arc they’ve had to work with to date. The film splits its time between two towns and two men who travel between them – the aforementioned Mayor Chad Foster and Martin Wall, a cattleman who has made a business of transporting cows from Mexico to Texas.
Both can hardly see a border, but they can’t miss the storm clouds gathering on the horizon. With news of Mexican cartels increasingly raising the level of violence in and around Piedras Negras, the two men can no longer cross countries with ease. But instead of concentrating on the gangs, whose presence looms larger since the Ross Brothers wisely leave them so undefined, the focus intensifies on the uneasy relationship that still exists amongst the border towns.
Slight but not insignificant differences in culture and tradition are caught by the Ross Brothers’ cameras, whether in swatches of coffee shop chatter in Eagle Pass or the juxtaposition of seeing a bullfight on one side of the border while on the other, they follow a bull rider’s attempt to tame a bucking bronco right into the ring. There’s a constant sense of revelation that permeates the film from the way they frame shots and pivot to reveal a different angle to sound design that will take gun blasts and turn them into fireworks, often cleverly acknowledging how small the differences are between the communities yet remain an obstacle nonetheless. In particular, Casey Wayne McAllister’s lively score is constantly morphing, seemingly using a different central instrument from scene to scene.
Visually, the brothers illuminate the beauty of their setting once more, opening with a jawdropping shot of the Rio Grande that summons the untouched frontier that many residents on both sides of the border might like to preserve, but the film as a whole fully realizes the complicated reality that makes that impossible, for better or worse. As filmmakers, the Ross brothers appear to be grappling with a similar issue, attempting a purity of observation reminiscent of cinema verité giants such as Frederick Wiseman and D.A. Pennebaker while recognizing the need to update the form for modern audiences. With “Western,” they wildly succeed in making something vital, vibrant and experiential.
“Western” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play five more times at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26th at 9 pm at the Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room, January 27th at 9 am at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre, January 29th at 5:30 pm at the Marc, January 30th at 3 pm at the Salt Lake City Library Theatre and January 31st at 10 am at the Holiday Village Cinema 4.