Truth and Movies

Unbranded

Review by Ian Mantgani @mant_a_tangi

Directed by

Phillip Baribeau

Starring

Ben Thamer Jonny Fitzsimons Thomas Glover

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.

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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