Impressed by the hardiness and resiliency of wild horses, a young Texan named Ben Masters brainstormed an expedition that would publicize their plight and encourage more people to adopt them.
"Unbranded" documents the 3,000-mile trek he made with three adventurous friends, 16 spirited mustangs and a recalcitrant donkey. It's a film with a cause, but it's also brimming with drama in the midst of jaw-dropping landscapes.
Crossing five states from the Mexican border to Canada, the four Texas A&M grads come face to face with the tough realities behind cowboy mythology, confronting treacherous terrain, wildfires and equine injuries. There are also inevitable Spinal Tap-esque clashes over philosophies, tactics and dueling GPS directions. The fine cast of characters includes a cowboy poet straight out of central casting, except he's the real deal and affectingly so.
Though they are American icons, the wild horses of the West are actually an invasive species (thank you, conquistadors). By attempting to prevent overgrazing and to strike a balance with ranchers, the government protects them but also manages their populations. Director Phillip Baribeau interweaves comments from experts and activists on both sides of the debate over the roundup of "excess" horses by the Bureau of Land Management.
But the film argues unequivocally that the horses thrive in the wide open spaces, not the BLM holding pens where tens of thousands await adoption. It also makes vividly clear what good companions they are on the trail.
Without anthropomorphizing the steeds, Baribeau emphasizes the riders' deep affection. Their getting-acquainted period — four months of training — receives disappointingly brief screen time, though, perhaps to showcase the horses' adaptability over their learning curve. If that's a dramatic opportunity wasted, the beasts' heart-stopping navigation of the Grand Canyon rim more than compensates.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for language, unsettling images.
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle's Ahrya Fine Arts, Beverly Hills; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle's Claremont 5. Also on VOD.