Mick Jagger once sang about “wild, wild horses”. In Philip Baribeau’s Unbranded (2015), four young men need be more concerned about being kicked in the head than dragged away as they attempt to tame wild mustangs and ride them the 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada. Their border to border trail will take them across the rugged and unforgiving terrain of the American west. This difficult journey was motivated by the sheer number of wild horses (50,000) that are kept in government holding facilities today.
The leader of the pack, Ben Masters, drew as motivation these horses’ need of adoption as the result of a booming population that the land simply cannot support. The documentary therefore sets off on parallel trails: the low road being a group of young bucks experiencing some post-university/pre-marriage and kids cowboy adventuring; the high road being equine activists and Bureau of Land Management officials debating the politics, moral issues and practicalities of a problem with widespread ramifications. In tow with the intrepid explorers each hoof fall of the trek, Baribeau’s remit lies in tying these two elements together which unfortunately meanders off course along the way. In standard documentary fashion Unbranded begins with a white lettered quote against a black background, offering some form of contextualisation.
Gus McCrae, a figure in Larry McMurty’s western novel Lonesome Dove, proclaims: “Ain’t nothing better than ridin’ a fine horse into a new country.” Luckily for Gus, Masters, and his three pals Jonny, Tom and Ben, feel much the same way. Further infobites draw attention to the magnitude of a problem that harks back to the introduction of horses to North America 500 years ago by the Spanish conquistadors. A “no animals were harmed during the making of this film” disclaimer is just not possible here as Baribeau does not shy away from the harsh realities that riders and horses alike face on such a backbreaking endeavour. There are brief instances of cowboy-hatted talking heads speaking to the characteristics of their rough and ready steeds, as well as the odd squabble as to who controls the map, but never is there the man and beast connection needed to really make Unbranded compelling viewing.
The only moments of real empathy occur when Val Geissler, an old horse trainer and self-proclaimed cowboy poet imbued with a heart the size of his head, provides assistance during the Arizona portion of the trip. Having lost his own son at a young age, the dewy-eyed pride he has for the tough lads as they set off has them all uncharacteristically emotional and is genuinely touching. Baribeau’s directorial debut certainly exemplifies his depth of experience as a cinematographer. Stunning visual compositions throughout glorify the varied landscapes traversed from south to north and will certainly inspire wanderlust in viewers bitten by the travel bug. However, he lacks the same assurance when attempting to bring the two paths together from a structural point of view. Had the group of friends and divided parties looking to resolve the larger issues at stake ridden off into the sunset hand in hand, Unbranded would have achieved a more wholesome, well-rounded and longer lasting impact.