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Unbranded Documentary Review Essay

Combining adventure and advocacy, “Unbranded,” a documentary by Phillip Baribeau, follows four recent Texas A&M graduates as they ride 3,000 miles, from Mexico to Canada, using mustangs sprung from government corrals.

The border-to-border expedition is conceived by Ben Masters, the lead rider, to encourage adoption of wild horses that are rounded up and held in Bureau of Land Management stables: That population is roughly 50,000, and growing. Without taking sides, “Unbranded” hears from ranchers whose livestock feeds on the same ranges; activists who feel the mustangs should be set free; and bureau officials who defend the federal policy.

Mainly, though, Mr. Masters and his fellow Aggies are seeking an experience they’ll always remember: five months in the saddle, riding and camping and fishing and more riding, with a team of 16 mustangs. The route takes them through mostly public lands, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, and through heat and rain, snow and rivers, mountains and deserts. Terrain is often steep, trails do not always exist, and, early on, a horse might bolt.

If there’s a disappointment, it’s that we get only glimpses of individual mustangs, just hints of their characters. A big attraction in films like this is also watching the bonds develop between man and animal, and “Unbranded” never does share much of that. (Nor of personal relationships: A last-day falling-out between Mr. Masters and another rider comes as a surprise.) What lingers, though, are stirring vistas of the backcountry West, and admiration — for the Aggies’ achievement, Mr. Masters’s imagination and Mr. Baribeau’s skill in chronicling it all.

“Unbranded” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) for language along the dusty trail.

Unbranded

  • DirectorPhillip Baribeau

  • StarsBen Masters, Jonny Fitzsimons, Thomas Glover, Ben Thamer

  • RatingPG-13

  • Running Time1h 46m

  • GenreDocumentary

  • Movie data powered by IMDb.com
    Last updated: Nov 2, 2017
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Beautifully shot vistas are all that this doc on modern cattle driving has to offer, and it isn’t enough.

Ben Masters, Ben Thamer, Jonny Fitzsimons and Thomas Glover are the young men in the documentary Unbranded, who tell usproudly they will travel a pack of wild mustangs 3,000 miles from Mexico to the Canadian border. They’ll take these adopted horses through Texas, Arizona, Idaho and Montana: “mountains, deserts, canyons – gnarly country.” But what they don’t quite tell us is why.

In a sense, it’s self-explanatory. The American frontiersman has always had a kinship with the horse, a subtext in countless westerns, occasionally foregrounded in something like Hidalgo or The Misfits. The boys have just graduated from Texas A&M, and they want an adventure and a challenge before they settle down to jobs and marriage.

Or, as George Mallory would have it, because it’s there. But seeing as they don’t explicitly state a reason, and the closest they get is, “there’s not much room out there for them and there’s not much room out there for us,” one wonders what a Werner Herzog would have found in this material – the void of man’s existence, locked in a tragic affinity with orphaned beasts against a landscape of looming death. To which a cowboy can only determine – as Jonny Fitzsimmons does – that he’s, “Born with a G on one foot and an O on the other.”

The director of Unbranded is Phillip Baribeau, who unfortunately does not have such a sense of the epic or poetic, and instead gives us the Discovery Channel version. The outdoor spirit of the adventurers is inspiring, and there are visceral moments of pain, like when horses get stuck with cacti or stumble and roll down hills.

There are moments of quirk and camaraderie, like when the boys confess that long stretches of riding on horseback are boring and they ride while reading paperbacks like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. And there is the audaciousness of the journey, such as passing through the Grand Canyon via thin, windy ledges – “If there’s a loose rock, we’re dead.” Very little of this, however, is captured by Baribeau with a sense of majesty – instead, there are generic slo-mo shots of spurs and horseshoes, and talking heads aplently but few shots that make clear exactly how many animals the gang is transporting. The televisual pacing is summed up by declarations like, “We did it! Took us three days!” after one daylight scene that lasts barely a minute.

We learn fascinating facts about the mustang being not a breed so much as a pet name, the overpopulation of them in the American West, the Bureau of Land Management’s attempt to control their growth while respecting their legally protected status and the effect of their overgrazing on commercial livestock. (“That land seems unlimited when you drive across it, but it is limited.”) Narratively, though, the film cuts between expert debate on scarcity of resources and the friendship of the fresh-faced travelling horsemen, never synthesising the differing themes of appropriate management levels of animals, the challenge of training them and the journey of a boys adventure. Just another thing that makes Unbranded feel like perfectly good TV, but not a movie at all.

Published 20 Nov 2015

Anticipation.

Wild wild horses, couldn’t drag me away.

Enjoyment.

Like five hours of Discovery Channel shoehorned into a two-hour movie.

In Retrospect.

The gift shop DVD from an exciting horse farm.

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