Unbranded is a documentary with a lot on its mind. On the surface level, it is an adventure about a group of young cowboys who train some mustangs and then ride them from the Mexican to the Canadian border. While their journey is an intense and fascinating one, the film also wants to shed light on the plight of wild mustangs and how the world has become too small for them to run free for much longer. Finally, the film takes a good hard look at the cowboys, four young recent Texas A&M graduates who just aren't quite ready for the collared shirts, wives, and children they think the world expects of them.
Watching these young men ride these once free horses into the wild is a thematically rich experience, where metaphor is also as literal as the danger they face on the trail. Each one of these men sees something of themselves in their horses, with their wild sides barely being held down by the strictures that society imposes and that ever-present impulse to bolt off into the sunset being held in check by the maturity they ungracefully forget to ignore.
The opening scene of the film shows one of the cowboys getting horse kicked close to his face while another gets bucked off. It is a dangerous ride with some moments (like the thin Grand Canyon trails and several horse injuries) that make the heart race and breath quicken. But these four men love their horses and the horses are protective of their riders, so everyone is in good hands.
In 2010, Ben Masters and two friends adopted some 125 mustangs from the Bureau of Land Management and rode 2,000 miles along the Continental Divide. They found that the mustangs outperformed their domesticated quarter horses at almost every turn. This reality, combined with the fact that more than 50,000 wild horses and burros are living in government pens and pastures without much hope of adoption, inspired Masters to prove a point.
After bringing on director Phillip Baribeau and running a successful Kickstarter campaign, Masters recruited his friends and fellow cowboys Jonny Fitzsimons, Thomas Glover, and Ben Thamer to join him on the 3,000-mile ride across Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. Their journey not only shows beyond a shadow of a doubt the strength and character of these mustangs, but that there is still a little bit of wildness left in the American West.
The film boasts some breathtaking cinematography and a few jaw-droppingly gorgeous Steadicam shots, but there is a section where the men and horses try to traverse a rocky hill that will glue anyone to their seat. It's a harrowing section of the film that really puts the adventure in documentary filmmaking.
Following the screening at the Tower Theatre, a panel will discuss some of the hot button issues this film sheds light on. Gayle Hunt from the Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition will be moderating, with Dennis Aig (a producer on Unbranded) participating via Skype, Marika Ruppe (from the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign), Rob Sharp (or someone else to be announced from BLM), and a speaker from the Forest Service all participating in the discussion.
Unbranded is a great documentary that doesn't shy away from anything it's showing. The men are all flawed but brave, the horses all wild but loyal, and the trail is dangerous but passable. Watching man and horse grow into their futures is never less than exhilarating, while also creating a layered and complicated discussion for horse lovers and conservationists alike. No matter what side of the divide viewers land on, Unbranded is never less than a phenomenal film.
7 pm, Wednesday, October 7
The Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St.