Unbranded
R2 - United Kingdom - Dogwoof
Review written by and copyright: Matthew Crossman (4th December 2015).
The Film

‘Unbranded’ is a documentary charting the course of four Texas University graduates as they attempt to travel from the Mexico border to the Canadian border on horseback. What makes this an even bigger challenge, as if travelling 3000 miles, non-stop, is not hard enough, they are doing it on wild Mustang horses that they have adopted and trained themselves. The documentary opens with a brief glimpse into the training process. For the first thirty days the horses are trained by two professional trainers before being handed over to the four young men for another three months personal training. What this brief section shows is that training a wild horse is dangerous. Very dangerous. These are large, powerful beasts and like all wild animals cannot be trusted. Despite this there are moments of true love shown by these men for these animals and it is this bond which crops up time and time again over the course of the documentary.

The leader of the group is Ben Masters. It is his idea and his planning of the trip took over two years. The funding for the project was completed via Kickstarter and as Masters says on that site the idea of the project was to, “show the importance of conserving the vast open spaces in the American West, promote equine exploration, and demonstrate the incredible endurance of the American Mustang.” Riding along with Ben Masters are Thomas Glover, Jonny Fitzsimons, and Ben Thamer. Each man has his own unique character but what may come as a surprise is that each of the 20 horses featured in the film also have their own characteristics as well. This is important to the film because when any of the horses are in danger, and there are several instances, we as viewers care about their welfare the same as the human characters, if not more so. These men had a choice to attempt this trip, the horses did not. Having said that the horses are clearly in their element. Interspersed throughout the documentary are interviews with experts on wild Mustang horses, their conservation and the impact they have in the Western United States of America, in particular the impact to vegetation and the eco-system in that part of the World.

As you would expect with a journey of 3000 miles over 6 months there is plenty of drama, both human and equine. The human drama, at times, seemed to me to be somewhat contrived. Whilst I appreciate that there would be inter personal clashes between the men over such a hazardous and challenging quest some of the decisions made by one or two of the men seemed to be made to benefit the documentary and to instil some drama. If it was contrived they need not have bothered. The documentary is a gripping film without anyone having to play to the camera. Whilst all the members of the team, two legged and four legged, are personable the real star is the landscape of The United States of America itself. The men’s journey takes them from the cactus plains of Arizona, through the glorious flats of Utah, the windswept plains of Wyoming and finally the rugged land of Montana. Each part of the journey is captured beautifully and none more so than the traversal of The Grand Canyon. This incredibly dangerous section of the trip is offset with the natural beauty of the land and is awe inspiring, breathless, and terrifying all at the same time. ‘Unbranded’ is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. It’s enough to make you want to be a cowboy. There are real moments of drama in ‘Unbranded’. Real moments of tragedy and real moments of triumph too. I highly recommend it.

Video

Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic. The scale of the vistas in this film are truly amazing and the camera work catches it all. The picture is beautifully crystal clear and it’s just as well because a poor picture really would ruin the documentary. I could not find fault with the picture in any shape or form. My only recommendation would be to watch this on the biggest screen you can find as the scenery really is tremendous.

Audio

The only choice available is the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound option. This too has had much care taken over it. The musical soundtrack is very good but it’s the sounds of the wind, and the rain that show off the capabilities of the soundtrack. The sound of hail thudding against the ground or against the backs of the horses is rendered beautifully and I would suggest that this is as close to be outdoors whilst being inside. The production team have done an excellent job of putting the viewer right their in the saddle with the four young men on their journey. There are no subtitles available.

Extras

Production team audio commentary - The cast and crew give a very informative commentary on the shooting of the documentary. The commentary opens with debut Director Phillip Baribeau talking about how he and his crew were with the men for about 90% of the trip and for the other 10% the riders had been given a camera in case there were any instances that should be caught on film. The perfect example of this is the opening scene which shows one of the men being kicked in the face by a horse as he tries to remove a cactus that the horse has stuck on it’s face. That was captured whilst the men were without the crew and it’s an excellent opening to the documentary and captures the essence of the film and the drama that would unfold. Because the documentary runs for approximately 100 minutes and the ride took several months there are plenty of anecdotes about the journey covered in the commentary that are not in the film making it a very interesting companion piece to the film itself. Unusually the commentary is featured in the audio section of the DVD menu and not the extras section so make sure you do not overlook it.

Theatrical Trailer (1:57) - The trailer does a good job of selling the film not only about the journey but also about the plight of wild Mustang horses in the American West, and highlights the beauty of the film well.

Behind the Scenes (13:14) - A collection of outtakes and interviews about the shooting of the film with the cast and crew. The most interesting aspect is that the Director and hardly any of the crew knew how to ride a horse! This behind the scenes extra charts their lessons on how to ride a horse and about the difficulties behind shooting such a dangerous documentary, including numerous injuries, not least to the Director who took a nasty kick from a horse in the first two weeks.

Scenics (1:33) - A short collection of scenic shots which are both beautiful and stunning.

Border to Border by Val Geissler (4:41) - This is the song that Val Geissler, an old ranch hand who helped the riders through the first stage in Arizona, and met up with them again near the end of the journey just outside of Yellowstone Park, wrote and performed about the 3000 mile voyage. Val Geissler is one of the human stars of the show and a fantastic, heart warming character in his own right.

Overall

As you can probably guess from the review, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Unbranded’. It’s a beautiful film, in more ways than one, and is stunningly photographed. Visually it’s an absolute treat and a joy from start to finish. The human characters in the documentary are all fascinating, as are the horses but the countryside of this particular part of the United States of America is the star of the show. Of the 100+ films I have seen this year ’Unbranded’ is easily one of the best three. I recommend watching it on the biggest screen you can find and if, at the end of the film, you do not want to go out and buy a horse and travel the world like Kane then I’ll eat my (cowboy) hat. Highly recommended.

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A Extras: A Overall: A

 


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