'Unbranded': Film Review

Unbranded Still - H 2015
Courtesy Cory Richards
Visually stunning doc raises important questions.

Four young would-be cowboys travel with sixteen wild horses from the Mexican to Canadian borders in Phillip Baribeau's documentary.

You'll undoubtedly channel your inner cowboy while watching Phillip Baribeau's documentary about the 3,000 mile journey undertaken by four young men to promote the adoption of wild horses in the American West. Gorgeously photographed and sure to boost visits to national parks, Unbranded, which won the Audience Award at Toronto Hots Docs Festival, is an engrossing real-life adventure that brings much-needed attention to an important environmental issue.

The venture was conceived by Ben Masters, who along with three fellow recent graduates of Texas A&M University embarked on the arduous expedition with sixteen mustangs. Lasting over more than five months and spanning five states from the Mexican to Canadian borders, the crossing took place almost entirely on public land, including such national parks as Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Glacier National Park.

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As the film informs us early on, horses, not an indigenous species, were introduced to this country 500 years ago by the Spanish conquistadors. A 1971 Federal law extended protection and allowed wild horses to run free, much to the consternation of ranchers who claim that they cause irrevocable damage. Reproducing at the rate of 20% a year, their numbers have reached unprecedented levels, with 50,000 horses and burros now living in holding facilities throughout the country.

Culled from some 500 hours of raw footage, the film is an episodic account of the adventure that held no small challenge for its participants, including one who got kicked in the head by a horse while attempting to extract cactus thorns.

"No matter how beautiful a country is, at some point it becomes a test of endurance," comments one of the young cowboys. This is particularly true when the riders are forced to go the long way around such private property as a Canyon Ranch that denied them permission to cross. So much for wellness.

The film has its slow patches, such as the footage of the fellows fishing (although there is a spectacular shot of Masters fly-fishing while lighting strikes in the distance) and engaging in reality-television style dishing about each other's personalities. One of the sillier moments involves them sitting down to a typically ragtag meal around a campfire—"This is a good meal to put lots of hot sauce on," one comments—that is followed by an energetic farting session. Gentlemen, Mel Brooks got there first.

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More effective comic relief is provided in the form of Donquito, an adorable burro adopted midway through the journey, while the early presence of Val, an elderly cowboy who serves as the men's mentor and who reveals a long-ago personal tragedy, adds a strong emotional component.

There are plenty of facts and figures shared in Unbranded, as well as a strong element of advocacy. But what viewers will come away with most is a renewed appreciation for the natural beauty of both the western region of the country and the wild animals that inhabit it.

Production: Fin & Fur Films, Implement Productions, Cedar Creek Productions
Director: Phillip Baribeau
Producers: Dennis Aig, Phillip Baribeau, Ben Masters
Executive producers: Cindy Meehl, Cami & John C. Goff, Terry & Margaret Hodge, Doug & Anne Marie Bratton
Directors of photography: Phillip Baribeau, Korey Kaczmarek
Editor: Scott Chestunt
Composer: Noah Sorota

Not rated, 105 min.