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From its title and opening moments, one might think that Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West is merely a tribute to these majestic animals. Medium closeup shots show them bathed in golden sunlight, dreamily shaking themselves off as a foal snuggles next to its mother. The sky turns blue and purple as the sun sets, and writer-director Ashley Avis segues to a wide shot of them galloping, her voiceover calling them “ghosts of the desert.”

But Avis has more up her sleeve than just admiration. Wild Beauty exposes a surprising and wrenching conspiracy: Wild horses are disappearing, rounded up to make room for ranchers’ grazing cattle and sheep. Thousands of them wind up in pens with spray paint on their coats, never to roam free again. The filmmakers show that their holding area has no shade or shelter from the elements. Others are sold at auction to be slaughtered for their meat.

Avis and her crew, which includes her husband, Edward Winters, and brother, Richard Avis, both producers, stumbled upon this story while filming Ashley Avis’s 2020 feature Black Beauty. The group experienced their first roundup in Nevada in 2019, witnessing 800 horses driven by helicopter to a trap site, then driven off the land to allow for thousands of livestock.

The film outlines how President Richard Nixon in 1971 stated that wild horses should be protected, quoting Henry David Thoreau about how “we need the tonic of wildness.” However, documents show that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the US Department of the Interior, has set the “appropriate amount” of free-roaming wild horses to zero. The agency received a budget of $115 million in 2021 for warehousing wild horses and perform helicopter roundups, working with three livestock companies that the film says earned millions from the government.

Sources such as a wildlife biologist explain that there are less than 100,000 wild horses left roaming on 245 million acres of public land, most of which is allotted for livestock. Avis also interviews two ranchers who love horses and criticize the BLM for being “not creative” or humane in managing the horse population.

Some of the most engrossing parts of Wild Beauty involve the film crew butting heads with officials for the BLM. In one exchange, Avis questions them about citing statistics regarding the land and horses from the 1990s with no adjustment for climate change. In another, the officials say the horses need to be taken to prevent their starvation and drought while Avis notes she’s a “horse person” who can see that they’re “fat and healthy.”

The officials also argue with the film crew about where they can set up for shots, citing their safety. Meanwhile, footage shows a helicopter flying low over the horses, startling them, and a young girl later getting out of the cockpit with an adult. How is that safe? Avis wonders.

The crew also spends time with the Onaqui horses of Utah, citing names people have given them: Stargazer, Moon Drinker, Suncatcher, a stallion with blue eyes someone called Norman, and Old Man, a white stallion nicknamed “the Gandalf of the Mountains,” after the wizard in The Lord of the Rings.

There are moments when one might wish Avis had dialed back on the narration, letting viewers absorb the horses’ beauty and personalities for themselves. (One quirky horse chomps on another’s tail.) But her affection for them is plain, down to the catch in her voice when she speaks of those who die during the roundups or later. When she sees sadness and betrayal in the liquid eyes of the captured horses, it’s hard to disagree.

The film ends with a call to action, urging viewers to contact Congress by phone or use the hashtag #istandwithwildhorses to let these animals roam free. They’re a living symbol of America, Avis argues, showing why it’s painful to watch them lose their freedom.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.