On the range in the gig economy

A portrait of two freelance range riders in ‘Bitterbrush’


Hollyn Patterson was born ready. And, as she jokes, premature, but that’s neither here nor there. Not yet, at least. Today she’s rustlin’ some beef across the Idaho hinterlands. And with Colie Moline at her side and a dozen dogs at their command, those cows are going where they need to get.

Directed by Emelie Mahdavian, Bitterbrush follows Patterson and Moline through three seasons of lonesome work herding cattle through endless sagebrush. Patterson and Moline are freelance range riders moving livestock from one grazing spot to the next for whoever has work. Neither has land of their own, but this is what they are good at, and this is what they love doing.

One of the pleasures of Bitterbrush is the rapport Patterson and Moline have with each other, something Mahdavian focuses on but does not overly emphasize. Most of Bitterbrush is understated. Everything here is unhurried and confident. Whether riding through a blizzard, breaking a young filly or dealing with a surprise pregnancy, Patterson and Moline never look unsure of their abilities.

Nor do they appear uncomfortable on screen. Occasionally one will talk to the camera to explain something. But this probably has more to do with how Patterson and Moline view their relationship with the film crew than Mahdavian peppering them with questions off-screen. Honestly, it works in the movie’s favor that Patterson and Moline acknowledge they’re being photographed. It makes Bitterbrush feel more authentic. Take Patterson’s long ride through the blizzard: The horse trudges headfirst into the wind, and the dog races ahead to the cows and then back to Patterson. Patterson dips her head low so that her hat bears the brunt of the wind. It’s a stunning shot, and the longer it goes on, the more you become aware that in this same blizzard in the middle of nowhere is another person riding on horseback, about 50 feet from Patterson, capturing it all with a movie camera. 

His name is Derek Howard, and his cinematography gives Bitterbrush realism. The music you hear, Bach keyboard pieces, is performed by piano duo Anderson and Roe. Their performance gives Bitterbrush its lyricism. This isn’t your average day-in-the-life documentary.

That’s because Patterson and Moline are not your average range riders. Watching Patterson work with a horse named Marilyn is a lesson in patience and firmness. Listening to Moline talk about the financial realities of farming and ranching in the 21st century is an exercise in accepting frustrating realities. Even Moline discussing her relationship to God drives at something more than just belief—it’s a lesson in practical spirituality.

None of this Mahdavian hammers home or underlines with bold markers. It’s so quiet at times you may even wonder what it all adds up to—quite a bit, once you start mulling it over.

For Mahdavian, Bitterbrush was a chance to make a movie about the community she lived in and the people she encountered. She succeeded. And not just by giving a portrait of two fascinating subjects, but by depicting a reality next door to ours that couldn’t feel more distant. 


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