Watching Unbranded creates a deep yearning for the vast, open West. Phillip Baribeau’s new documentary charts the journey of four young men and their 16 wild mustangs as they attempt to trek the backroad route through Midwestern America, from the Mexican border to Canada. Their aim is to raise awareness about the issues facing the 33,000 wild horses that roam free throughout the country, troubles ranging from the environmental to the bureaucratic. Along the way the group heads off everyday challenges, such as how to keep entertained during long stretches in the saddle (by reading: they pass a battered copy of Fifty Shades of Grey between them as they plod through the Grand Canyon), but also life-threatening ones, such as being kicked in the head while removing cactus spines from an angry stallion.
Unbranded was Kickstarter-funded and is as earnest and uncynical as a student film, yet shot in such a gorgeous, polished way that many higher-budget productions look comparatively sloppy. It is episodic in structure, hurtling through the first six months of training, and seems as eager to get on the road as the young men that it follows. The film is also more stylised than the average documentary, with slow-motion shots and atmospheric country music lending the feel of a Hollywood adventure.
However, it suffers from several tonal missteps that lead to confusion about what the film is trying to achieve. The interviews flirt with moments of deeper emotion, but Baribeau lacks the graft to linger too long on any of them. Mentor Val Geissler’s eyes fill with tears as he bids the boys goodbye on one leg of their journey, yet the director cuts away after a few seconds, preventing the moment from gaining any real impact. Similarly, solemn subtitles interrupt to inform us of the plight facing modern wild horses, before the film suddenly transitions to the team goofing around a campfire and pranking each other with fake snakes.
Nevertheless, Unbranded imparts a little wisdom about the value of natural spaces and wildlife by its close, and is persuasive in its advocacy and conviction. While the overall tone reads more like a reasonably adventurous gap year than any great moral or ethical journey, the horses make a charming subject, despite the braying yahoos on their backs, and elecit an overwhelming desire to protect them.
Unbranded is released nationwide on 27th November 2015
Watch the trailer for Unbranded here: