Directed by: Ashley Avis
Distributed by: TBD
Written by Anna Harrison
Every year, the Bureau of Land Management rounds up thousands of wild mustangs in the American West to keep the horse population in check, ostensibly for the good of the native ecosystem. I’ve known about the BLM roundups since I was in the single digits as an avid watcher and re-watcher of “Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies” and subsequent collector of Breyer horse models of Cloud and his family. “Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West” presents these roundups as if they are hidden from the public, when in reality director Ashley Avis and her team are documenting something that has been going on for decades and is well-known in the horse community. “At first, what we discovered sounded like a conspiracy,” intones Avis, “until we realized… it was.” Where have you been for the past fifty years? This is not to say that “Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West” is not a worthy endeavor, only that it is not as unique as Avis might think.
So, how does one round up thousands of mustangs to be auctioned off? The answer is not pretty: get a helicopter, find a herd, and swoop down upon them, causing them to flee in a panic, then herd them into a narrow trap from whence they are separated into small paddocks. (As Avis dramatically puts it, they are “put into government holding facilities, never to gallop again.”) Injuries abound when the helicopters run these horses—young, old, injured, pregnant, whatever state they may be—for miles and miles, but even when they’re in the pens, the injuries don’t stop. Fights break out, or some horses injure themselves trying to escape. From there, some horses get adopted into loving homes, and a select few even go on to compete in the Extreme Mustang Makeover. Those are the lucky ones. The unlucky either get euthanized at the BLM pens or shipped to kill pens in Texas, where they’re bought for a low price and shipped over to Mexico for slaughter. It’s not a pretty sight.
There are many factors at play here: government incompetence, lobbying from the farm industry, and environmentalist concerns, to name a few. Avis eventually touches on these issues, but undercuts any credibility within the first few minutes by interviewing Dr. Yvette Running Horse Collin, who claims that modern horses have always been in North America, a fact which is demonstrably false. Horse predecessors and extinct horse subspecies lived in North America for years, but became extinct around the end of the Ice Age before being reintroduced by European colonizers. All wild mustangs today are technically classified as “feral,” not wild, as they are descended from domesticated horses. Dr. Collin hypothesizes, with no evidence included except for some vague references to unspecified Native American art, that horses have always been in North America, and the prevailing idea that they were reintroduced by Christopher Columbus is somehow the work of “Big Paleontology” to diminish the link Native peoples have with horses in America.
By leading with Dr. Collin, Avis casts doubt upon the rest of her talking heads in the film, and she sets up the audience for confusion: is this about horses and spirituality? An examination of how Native people and horses became so linked when they were introduced by the very men who would go on to wipe out huge swaths of Native people? Or is it an examination of the brutality of BLM roundups? An indictment of how we treat animals? Avis bounces between many thesis statements with precious little hard data to back up her points, even when they appear to be salient: what exactly is the roundup’s cost to taxpayers? How much damage do free-roaming sheep and cattle do to our environment? What about land for oil drilling? Why are big ranches allowed to have contracts with the BLM for the roundup? What little data Avis presents could be compelling, if only there were more. Instead, she relies largely on emotional pleas, and in neglecting to touch on any pro-roundup points, cannot totally refute them. Each failure to investigate the topics at play here becomes more and more frustrating, because it is clear that Avis knows the bigger issues and wants to discuss them, but either cannot find a way to or simply lacks the curiosity to dig deeper.
There are kernels of a compelling documentary here, and some beautiful shots of Montana and Nevada, but Avis’s thesis is so scattershot that it makes “Wild Beauty” ineffective. Even some of the appeals for empathy for the horses fall flat as she jumps between herds with no rhyme or reason, telling us how she grew to care for the various stallions and mares of the Onaqui herd without letting the viewers marinate with the animals and grow to care for them alongside Avis. “Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies” it ain’t. While Avis’s cause might be just, I wish there was someone else who could champion these wild mustangs the way they deserve.
“Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West” Trailer