Think of ‘Unbranded’ as the ultimate road trip envisioned as a buddy movie.
On April 1, 2013, Ben Masters, Thomas Glover, Jonny Fitzsimons, and Ben Thamer – all recent graduates of Texas A&M – set out on a 3,000-mile trip that most of us would view as sheer lunacy. With a string of 16 wild mustangs that have been mostly tamed only weeks earlier, the four 20-somethings mount up at the Mexican border near Nogales, Arizona, and set out for a ride to the Canadian border some 3,000 miles away and across five states. It is a beautiful but perilous undertaking. If they make it all the way, they calculate they will arrive at the Canadian border in early September.
That road trip is the subject of a documentary, ‘Unbranded,’ which opens in theaters this week as well as being available on video on demand.
The quartet’s attempt, through deserts, around cities, and across snowy mountains, will take them five months. True, they have a scatter-shot support team of relatives and acquaintances to show up every so often with a new horse or other assistance. True, they are all trained horsemen. True, they have family wealth behind them, as at least two of them have experience in riding polo ponies.
But still – five months in the saddle over trails that most of us would have had trouble navigating on foot, rethinking their routes around wild fires, searching for back-country roads that apparently exist only on their maps, riding through storms without shelter, and being on constant guard against rattlesnakes, bear and moose.
However, the biggest challenge is often their relations with each other – four men full of testosterone, all more comfortable leading instead of following. It is interesting to see how their personalities emerge and diverge – the leader who has never completely sold to his comrades his holy grail vision of the endeavor, the smartass clown who turns out to be rock-steady, the titular second-in-command who becomes somewhat of a psych job.
The film also examines in a fairly even-handed manner the debate on what to do about the thousands of wild horses – the mustangs whose heritage dates back to Spanish conquistadors – that range across the Western mountain and plains.
All through this, the viewer wonders at times how the camera crew both kept up and stayed out of the way while being in the midst of what at times was a life-or-death venture. Mostly they do their job well, managing to let us see the four as mostly on their own.
Director Phillip Baribeau and editor Scott Chestnut have also done an excellent job of putting together a straightforward narrative with little foreshadowing even after they, of course, know the outcome. And there are a minimum of artsy sunrises and sunsets.
All in all, it is a fabulous documentary of breathtaking beauty and considerable suspense, one that keeps you interested throughout, one that makes you anticipate what will happen next and to ask questions which may have no answers.