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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

FISHTAIL: Tribeca Film Festival 2014 Review

Ranch Hand Tylee Abbott herds the bulls over the ridge. 
Photographer: Joe Anderson.
2014, 61 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

This year's World Documentary Competition has featured a variety of different documentaries about everything from the transgender community in Puerto Rico to a group of people protecting mountain gorillas in Congo. However, no documentary in competition is quite like Andrew Renzi's hypnotic FISHTAIL, an hour-long film that documents modern day cowboys as they work through calving season at Fishtail Basin Ranch in Montana.

The only narration is a beautiful, rough recording of Harry Dean Stanton reading poetry. While this approach certainly will not please everyone, I was mesmerized throughout. The 16MM cinematography gives the film the feel of a classic western. It's faded colors and film grain make this an ode to a time gone by.

These cowboys are among the last of their kind. They are a group who thrived 150 years ago but have been slowly been dying. Renzi's film captures this sense of melancholy through Stanton's narration and the cinematography, but it is also a testament to those who live and love this rough way of life. These men rise at sunrise and work through the day caring for these animals.  Their job is their life.

Fishtail's "narrative" (if it can even be called that) is split into sections.  The section dividers are placed based on the natural progression of life on the ranch, not on some artificially constructed narrative that the filmmakers wanted to tell.  This allows the film to move smoothly and rhythmically, following the ebbs and flows of life on the ranch.

The sun-drenched, mystical cinematography by Joe Anderson ranks among the best I've seen this year.  The old-fashioned look that he created for this film is a wonderful homage to rougher revisionist westerns like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Heaven's Gate, and this places the film firmly in the Revisionist Western genre that left out the mythologizing and glamorizing that plagued many classic Westerns of the 1930s-1950s (The Searchers being a notable exception).  

Overall, Fishtail is another masterful documentary world premiering at Tribeca.  The cinematography, direction, narration, score (by Danni Bensi and Saunder Jurrians), and just about everything else in this film work together beautifully to create a near-perfect whole.  


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