Hot Docs 2015 Review: UNBRANDED, Wild, Wild Horses Couldn't Drag Us Away

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
Hot Docs 2015 Review: UNBRANDED, Wild, Wild Horses Couldn't Drag Us Away
Four Texas A&M University graduates choose one hell of a in-between-school-and-real-life adventure, opting to adopt a dozen or so wild mustangs, train them, and make a 3000 mile journey from the Arizona-Mexican border up the spine of former 'wild west' to the Canadian border. Using a route through almost exclusively public lands that took two years of planning, they desire to live out our collective dream of the 19th century frontiersmen -- albeit in true 21st century fashion, they have a documentary camera to document, edit and mythologize their own rite of passage.

One of the early images in Unbranded features one of the horses thoroughly stung with nettling cactus thorns kicking one of the boys in the face. Hard. It sets the stakes and the risks of the proposed journey. This is juxtaposed with an graphically polished opening credits sequence, an A-team montage-fantasy of blacksmithing and shimmering flames and open country that would not look out of place in a Chevy truck advert. It is all a bit tongue in cheek, playful, and showing what I hope is a kind of self-awareness of their own devil-may-care hubris, combined an attitude where overconfidence will always trump fear.  The film is presented, unabashedly in that over-the-top freedom lovin' attitude embodied west of the Mississippi, without becoming too cloying or maudlin about it. 

The cowboys are, mainly, lead by Ben Masters, the strawberry haired man-with-the-plan who bears photogenically good looks and aw-schucks charisma of Robert Redford (who is notably thanked in the end credits of this film). But there is often disagreement in the problem solving and challenges en route between the four men. Maps are out of date, trails are not what once were, and private lands often bear the sweetest routes, but have owners that refuse trespass. 

Arguments featuring a GPS, paper topography maps, and iPhones, the navigation tools at hand are not uncommon. What is striking is that the journey is documented, warts, farts, and all. Evidence of the modernity, roads, hikers, the occasional plane flying overhead, peek into the frame subtly highlight the modern decline of natural frontiers, and the rise of the National Parks Project. The image of a cowboy hat with a Go-Pro camera strapped to it is a curious one, but looking down from horseback at the spectacularly steep drop-offs alongside dozens of switchbacks in the Grand Canyon, I'm glad they went that route.

Interspersed with the high-adventure, is the practical reality of the ongoing debate about what to do about wild horses on public lands. A Mustang is, more or less, a folksy word for 'wild horse,' and apparently, they breed like rabbits and eat like pigs interfering with the commerce and ecology of the landscape. The Bureau of Land Management frequently gets into scraps with activists and cattle ranchers in regards to penning these horses and trying to get people to adopt them. 

Including this information is informative to a casual audience, but it gives the whole journey a sponsored 'ride for heart' charity vibe that bumps up occasionally with the libertarian hi-jinx. Albeit in the spirit of myth-making, it speaks to the 'then there were fences,' end of the frontier theme that is at the heart of most Western movies.

The scrublands of Arizona, Snow-laden ridges of the Grand Canyon and Utah up to Glacier Park in Montana all get their majesty displayed. Many shots of natural landscapes, in full sunset and starry sky'd glory, are worthy of seeing on the big screen. Shots of Masters fishing in the rain with lightning forking in the distance are truly breathtaking stuff. And in terms of emotional content, the interplay with the cowboys and their mentor and country-poet Val is touchingly sweet as he helps them with the water-logistics, horse sense, and serenades the journey with a song. 

If Unbranded occasionally veers into the grammar of reality television, guys talking about the personalities of the others candidly, egos, body odour and other mundane realities of life on the trail, et cetera, this is easily forgivable for the truly spectacular cinematography, which is the drawing point. And if Unbranded succeeds in raising issues around sustainability and preservation of "America's Best Idea," the Public National Parks, beyond being the most elaborately produced video diary of one golly of a vacation, then all the better.


  • Phillip Baribeau
  • Ben Masters
  • Jonny Fitzsimons
  • Thomas Glover
  • Ben Thamer
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DocumentaryhotdocsunbrandedWesternPhillip BaribeauBen MastersJonny FitzsimonsThomas GloverBen Thamer

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