John Zaritsky, Canada’s master of metaphor, has taken a fascinating book (90 Day Horses by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths) and crafted a cinematic gem. Through his customary engaging storytelling, Colorado’s magnificent scenery and Daniel Séguin’s brass-hued score, the film works on so many levels that several viewings are advised.
Of course, the stars of the show are the wild mustangs. From the opening aerial sequence (the stunning images due to the special skills of cinematographers John Collins and Ian Kerr—deftly assisted by Tanya Maryniak’s editing—don’t miss the collage of “You’re gonna get hurt” replies!) where a few of the thundering herd are driven away to human incarceration (to keep their numbers in check) via a sheep-dog-in-the-sky whose noisy propellers and dusty entrails force the terrified beasts to their own version of the pen.
In exchange for TLC and regular meals, the mares and stallions are carefully examined (“not enough hip on ‘em … not put together very well” being the chief concerns of veteran trainer Guy McEnulty whose assistants are serving serious time for major offences against civilized society) and the lucky chosen few begin a rigorous program of having their wild, vicious-kicking ways drained out of them. Those who complete the transition are then auctioned off to spend the rest of their days in the service and love of the highest bidders.
Much is made of the similarity of the horses to the inmates whose uncontrollable urges or anger management issues have kept them at odds with the law. Who better to tame a wild bronco than those who have ridden down the wrong trails for years? Yet there is a fundamental difference that doesn’t find its way into the narrative. During his first prison time (just eighteen) Anthony Edwards recalls feeling like he’d been “taken out of the chaos.” Brandon Clay—the only black cowboy—brings his fear of injury to work every day, and readily admits “I didn’t care for authority at all” but eventually realizes that “today effects tomorrow.” After years of drug abuse and stealing to feed his habit, Matt Peebles saw that “I was really dying slowly … it was almost a shame to show my face [to my family].” 50706, a.k.a. Jon Peterson has the hottest temper of the quintet and the convictions to prove it. The senior trainer is pinning his future hopes on working with horses after his just weeks-away release into a half-way house, “I think I’ll do good this time … my biggest fear is dying in here.”
Even though Zaritsky weaves together the trials and tribulations of all the men, the drama—like the horses as they learn to accept a pat on the cheek, a rope on their hind quarters (“sacking out”), a blanket, saddle and finally a two-legged creature on their quivering backs—hones in on the final duel between hotheads Jon and his jittery steed, Sam: each one wanting to claim sweet victory on the crucial first ride. Through skillful cutaways (a black-and-white barn cat is especially fun) and commentaries from his co-prisoners and mentor, Jon’s fate is uncertain to the very end. Along this path, in a fascinating coincidence (or marvellous moment of life imitates art), Sam develops a sore hoof and Jon breaks his foot.
Fortunately, Zaritsky and his crew were able to capture it all, sharing some truly moving moments from this disparate/desperate collection of cons.
All of which brings us back to first principles. Through their own actions, the inmates ended up “out of the chaos” but behind bars. The horses’ only crime was to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, unwittingly winning the herd-management lottery. Little wonder they kick so hard and snort so loud. That their breaking can lead to a life-altering experience for what were lost souls is a further tribute to the beautiful, noble beasts. The question remains, how do we get tomorrow’s crooks and killers under the calming spell of these untamed steeds before fresh carnage and crime begins? JWR