"With rugged reverence," begins Nick Schager in Slant, "Sweetgrass depicts the final sheepherder drive into Montana's Beartooth mountains, a saga that begins on farms where sheep are born and shorn, and ends in another cattle pen after an arduous trek across the region's blustery plains and punishing peaks."
Ronnie Scheib in Variety: "At once epic-scale and earthbound, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor's startling docu plays like a mad cross between Howard Hawks's Red River and Grass, Merian Cooper's paean to vanishing nomadic traditions (with a dash of Tex Avery's Drag-along Droopy)."
"This is almost certainly the least sentimental American movie about Nature since Gerry," writes Vadim Rizov at GreenCine Daily. "Part masculine comedy of swearing, part formalist experiment in which not a real word is spoken for the first half-hour, it's anything but cloistered."
"En masse, the sheep constitute a massive screen presence," writes Cullen Gallagher at Not Coming to a Theater Near You. "The longest of shots can't contain the sheer enormity of the herd.... The detail-oriented direction is largely successful. There's something of Robert Flaherty's particularity in the film, but without his fact-bending (or breaking) idealism. Sheep can be genuinely funny, and the herders' frustrations are equally empathetic and amusing."
"Sweetgrass, described by its filmmakers as 'an unsentimental elegy to the American West,' defies conventions of both westerns and documentaries as it's far from the wild shoot-'em-up the former normally conjures and eschews the interviews, narrators, talking heads, and, most surprisingly for a film with underlying issues of politics, industry, and the environment, the overt statement-making of the latter." Farihah Zaman in Reverse Shot: "The film is one of a growing movement of recent documentaries like Our Daily Bread or California Company Town that show more than they tell, and allow us to delve in and experience the issues at hand rather than dissect them from above."
"Once man and beast make it to pasture," notes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, "nature overwhelms the screen and even minds: 'It's miserable up here,' a man whines to his mother on a cellphone as the filmmakers cut to the surrounding majesty."
James Hansen: "Although it loses some steam after its ecstatic opening (but perhaps I'm just too into wordless documentaries that follow the duties of animals and/or workers), Sweetgrass is a quite a surprise and a thoroughly engaging work."
For Michael Tully, writing at Hammer to Nail, it's "one of the year's best nonfiction films."
Updates, 10/2: "Ironically, in the filmmakers' objective to shoot the landscape, sheep, and people with equal parity, what is lost is the sense of diurnal rhythm intrinsic in their ritual," finds Acquarello.
David Fear in Time Out New York: "The film's free-form format occasionally offers some breathtaking moments, but not enough to outweigh an overall feeling of inertia; anybody expecting bigger-picture commentary is bound to leave feeling fleeced."
NYFF 09: Index; full coverage.