Film Review: Unbranded

Four modern-day cowboys drive 16 mustangs from Mexico to Canada in this sumptuously packaged and goofily charming oddball feature-length advocacy advertisement about America’s wild-horse overpopulation crisis.
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One of the first things the average non-cowboy will learn in Unbranded is that mustangs are not a breed of horse. Rather, it’s a catchall term for the wild horses that thrive in the wide-open spaces of the American West. The second thing is that mustangs are beautiful and dangerously wild creatures of sleek muscle and deep dark eyes that catch the camera like few other animals can. The third thing is that if heaven exists, it might be something like riding a mustang through the ravishing landscapes captured here in blazingly bright color. But, then, cowboys already knew all that.

Unbranded is unapologetically a message-delivery system for its cause: what to do about the overpopulation of mustangs. There are about 50,000 of them roaming the West. But the federal government’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) estimates that there are only appropriate resources in federally protected lands to keep about 26,000 of them reasonably well-fed. Since it appears that culling of herds has proven politically unviable, the BLM keeps the remaining 24,000 or so mustangs in captivity to keep them from starving to death. Between ranchers demanding more use of land for their cattle and animal activists who want all the mustangs to run free, the BLM has a hard time pleasing anybody on the matter.

The film takes an unusual route to this subject, but one that ultimately works in its favor. The idea here is that four cowboys with an interest in protecting these horses will ride 16 of them (give or take) 3,000 miles from Mexico north to the Canadian border. By doing so, they hope to prove that the wild mustangs can be trained well enough to serve as perfectly good riding horses worthy of adoption. Along the way, if they can call attention to the incredible wealth of federally protected wild lands, so much the better.

The subtext to this journey has less to do with the horses and more to do with these bright-eyed and smart-alecky guys trying to have one great adventure before adult life intrudes. To that end, the months-long drive across parched plains and up rocky cliffs that a mountain goat would balk at doesn’t disappoint. Unbranded isn’t subtle about making the occasional stab at reality-television-like interpersonal drama between the cowboys. There are moments when you wouldn’t be surprised to see the logo of the Discovery or National Geographic channel in the corner of the screen and the title “Wild West Mustangs” or some such. (The filmmakers show enough respect for their animal stars not to try to cheaply anthropomorphize them.) More often, though, the screen is filled with verdant landscapes and a contemplative appreciation of their untrammeled majesty.

As up-front as Unbranded is about the issue at hand, it’s unusually reticent to present solutions. This is more refreshing than frustrating. The last thing that the documentary world needs is another narrowcast film that identifies one problem and then hammers home the one thing that must be done to fix it. By taking the broad view and emphasizing the irreplaceable delight of these mustangs in such stunning vistas, Unbranded makes its point more generally: Things of beauty, animate or not, deserve saving. Once everybody agrees on that, the film seems to hope, a consensus solution will follow.

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