French transplant Diego Ongaro moved to the elevated town of Sandisfield, Massachusetts with his author wife, Courtney Maum, in search of a film career. In turn, he found Bob Tarasuk, who would become his unlikely muse. The Berkshire town boasts a population of less than a thousand people; residents’ primary source of income is in farming and logging. Tarasuk has lived in the area with his wife for more than three decades doing just that: raising cattle, sawing trees, and living hand-to-mouth, all in a day’s work.
Eventually, Ongaro, Maum, and Sasha Statman-Weil sat down to write a film about a man who has lived off the land for so long that he knows no other way. First came a short film in 2011 and then came Bob and the Trees four years later. It barely made a sound, in fact, and almost eight years after its release, still has less than 200 ratings on IMDb. The only reason it came up on my radar was because I was so smitten with Ongaro’s follow-up, Down with the King, which also stars Tarasuk, that I had to double-back and watch the film that built the foundation for that masterpiece.
Bob and the Trees draws on the day-to-day living of Bob Tarasuk, a prideful laborer who lives with his wife, Polly (actress Polly MacIntyre). When he’s not chain-sawing or tending to his animals, he slouches on the couch and watches golf, or gets enough motivation to hit a few balls off a cliff. It’s wintertime on the farm and there’s a lot of work to be done, subzero temperatures and 12+ inches of snow be damned.
Ongaro and company don’t afford us much of an introduction to the economics nor process of logging. Instead, they drop us into this snow-covered enclave and allow us to observe, cinéma vérité-style, a way of life that seldom gets to enjoy the cinematic limelight.
Against the advice of his son and business partner Matt (played by Matt Gallagher, Tarasuk’s son-in-law), Bob withdraws $25,000 to pay for a job offered by Nat Leiland (Nathaniel Gregory), who we’re led to believe is one of the area’s most prominent businessmen. When Bob and Matt start cutting, they realize that many of the trees on this acreage are hollowed out due to an ant infestation. In layman’s terms, they’re going to lose their asses, and an enraged Matt leaves his stubborn father to finish the job himself.
Bob doesn’t cut his losses. He digs himself a deeper hole. Around the same time another farm up the road has a pig stricken with rabies, Bob discovers one of his favorite cows has a large, bloody gash in her side. It could be coyotes. Could it be a rabid one? Who can say? Either way, Bob will handle it. Even if it means alienating his wife and son and sending himself into a paranoid state-of-mind in the process.
The benefits and sadness of this life are all on display in Bob and the Trees. Ongaro shows the highlights, be they the tight-knit family meals or Polly’s ladies nights (aka “stitch and bitch” sessions, a real-life weekly event Tarasuk’s wife holds at their home). As with most stories of “living off the land,” there’s an aspect of self-reliance that’s quite tempting, if only for a moment.
Ongaro shoots his feature debut like a documentary. The naturalistic dialog — complete with stutters, “ums,” and logger jargon — is so lived-in that, for extended periods of time, I felt like I was watching just another day at Snow Farm unfold. The cinematography team of Chris Teague and Daniel Vecchione capture the bitter New England winters in a way that nearly leads the viewer to feel the chill themselves. Some shots of wind whipping the flakes of snow off of cattle, or close-ups of ice caked on Bob’s thick moustache, allow you to feel the cold as well as the isolation.
One eccentric quality of Bob’s — both the character in the film and the real life Tarasuk — is his love for underground rap music, specifically Immortal Technique. A couple instances in the film have Bob listening to or rapping along with Technique’s hard-hitting bars; this shows Bob in his most confident headspace, which is an inspiring place to be, regardless of the situation it took to get him in that mindset.
Both of Ongaro’s works have reminded me of my love not only for mumblecore, but the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman, which show institutions and cities and the people behind them. There’s a beauty to the human experience with which the young French filmmaker is so deeply in-tuned. There’s a patience to Bob and the Trees that allows you to sink into the setting, the characters, and the spaces in which they occupy. It doesn’t need flash nor significant story developments. It has all the ingredients it needs to make a flavorful and deceptively rich film.
NOTE: As of this writing, Bob and the Trees is available to rent on a variety of VOD platforms.
Starring: Bob Tarasuk, Matt Gallagher, Polly MacIntyre, and Nathaniel Gregory. Directed by: Diego Ongaro.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!