Have you watched Horse Girl on Netflix yet? The latest from filmmaker Jeff Baena (of the raunchy nun improv The Little Hours) and actress and co-writer Alison Brie (who co-starred in The Little Hours alongside her future husband Dave Franco, Baena’s long-term girlfriend Aubrey Plaza, and Garfunkel and Oates member Kate Micucci) debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and arrived on the streaming service on Friday, Feb. 7.
Perhaps you might like to refresh yourself with the trailer:
As you can see in the trailer (which I think gives far too much away, actually), there’s a lot going on in Horse Girl. Brie stars as Sarah, a somewhat awkward 30something who works at an arts and crafts store, lives with a more extroverted roommate, is still obsessed with her horse Willow (who no longer belongs to her), and is beginning to unravel. After her latest birthday, things get weird — she starts having nosebleeds, lucid dreams, and wonders whether her reality is exactly what it seems. Alien abductions, a grandmother who looked exactly like her, mysterious bruises all over her body — is something happening to Sarah? And if so, what?
Let’s get into SPOILER TALK, SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS!
Horse Girl doesn’t immediately establish that Brie’s Sarah is an unreliable narrator, but Baena does build that characterization of her steadily throughout the film. When talking to Molly Shannon’s Joan, a coworker and maternal figure, about her family, Sarah says she doesn’t know much, and we learn it’s because her mother died last year and her grandmother, after suffering a breakdown, died homeless on the streets. So there’s a lot Sarah isn’t sure about, but she does treasure various photographs of her female relatives—including a photograph in which her grandmother looks exactly like her. So is she totally unaware about who her family was? Not really, and she knows that mental illness is present throughout various generations. That’s one sort of questionable thing: What Sarah knows to be true about her family, vs. what she tells others.
Next up is how she presents herself. We see her to be a woman yearning for human connection, and she does have friendly relationships with Joan and other employees at the crafts store, and she has a sort of polite rapport with her roommate. But the more people we see Sarah interact with, we realize something is always a little off. She treats Willow’s new rider like a daughter, and Baena lets us think at first they might have a relationship—until the tween stammers that her mom is waiting for her outside the stable. Sarah has no connection to this girl at all except for watching her ride every day so she can really watch Willow, and then providing extra-detailed feedback to this girl who doesn’t want it. The people who run the stable tolerate Sarah still coming around, but are flummoxed by how often she wants to help, by her braiding a friendship accessory for Willow’s mane, by her inability to let go. And then there’s her roommate’s boyfriend’s friend Darren (John Reynolds), who Sarah gets drunk with, flirts with, and hugs, and then suddenly she’s telling people he’s her boyfriend. For the first half of the film, Sarah doesn’t quite live in a fantasy world, but her obsession with the supernatural-themed police show Purgatory and her reliance on folksy objects like God’s Eyes suggest she could be willing to wander down a path of imagination that deviates increasingly further from reality.
And that’s when, about halfway through, Horse Girl fully jumps into psychological thriller mode, with Sarah experiencing vivid dreams of being in an all-white room with strangers, beginning to lose time and experience time in different ways, sleep walking lengthy distances, and doing things she can’t quite explain. At first, the movie suggests that this is Sarah’s familial problems with mental illness manifesting in her, too, since everything that happens could be explained away. The man she sees in her dreams walks by the craft store every day; maybe he just lingered in her subconscious. She’s always gotten nosebleeds; maybe she’s just under more stress. She doesn’t drink that often; maybe her gouging of an apartment wall was a one-time thing. By the time Sarah ends up in an institution for a 72-hour hold, you sympathize with Jay Duplass’s psychiatrist character, who tries to gently tell Sarah that her fear of alien abduction and her belief that she’s her grandmother’s clone are certainly her reality, but not the reality.
UNTIL the movie goes full ambiguous ending on us! There are two ways to read the final 15 or so minutes of Horse Girl, when Sarah breaks out of the institution, goes back to the crafts store, steals yards and yards of a coral-colored fabric that a customer told her would have protective qualities, goes back to her apartment and sews protective clothing for herself and Willow, has sex with Darren, who then transforms into the same-named character from the TV show Purgatory, and wanders through the all-white dreamscape she had encountered while sleeping. When Sarah wakes up, she’s certain that all this happened, and that she is her grandmother’s clone, and so she leaves the institution after the 72 hours are up, goes back and dresses and styles herself as her grandmother in that picture, frees Willow, and wanders into a forested area where she lies down — and is scooped up by a spaceship, who levitates her above the forest and into the vessel. The movie ends with Willow alone, wearing a gigantic God’s Eye pendant Sarah had made.
So is any of this real? MAYBE, but the movie doesn’t decide! You could accept all of this as really happening because the film begins in that same forest and ends in that same forest, implying a time loop. Also implying the time loop is that in the film’s first scene, Shannon’s Joan spots a horse walking by the crafts store and then disappearing, and we see that scene again at the very end, when Sarah-dressed-like-Grandma walks by the store with Willow; inside, we see Joan noticing the horse again. What’s up with THAT? And seeing Sarah disappear into an alien spaceship, leaving Willow alone, is also a tip that this might be reality: She was there, then she’s not.
But the other understanding of this ending is that once Sarah is in the institution, we go fully into her mind, and never come back out. Everything we experience is what Sarah thinks she’s experiencing. The evidence for this is that when Sarah leaves the institution in the middle of the night after her room door mysteriously unlocks, we follow her escape into the night, and watch her flee past the wall of the institution — and panning upward, we see another Sarah at the room’s window, watching this first Sarah leave. Could that Sarah in the window be “real” Sarah, and the Sarah we follow past that point is just what Sarah believes is happening? That’s also totally a valid read of the film, since Sarah is already established as an unreliable narrator externally when interacting with other people. Us going inside her mind would continue her unreliable narrator status internally, while still leaving the Sarah in the window as the “real” one.
Despite the impressively committed nature of Brie’s performance, I must admit that the ambiguity of the ending left me cold, and I thought it took away from the film’s otherwise thoughtful depiction of mental illness. If everything was just aliens and clones, well, are we supposed to see Sarah as having been “right” this whole time? Does that make us view her any differently as a character? What does that say about the trauma she experienced, from finding her mother’s dead body to seeing her best friend bucked off a horse and developmentally disabled as a result? I’m not exactly sure that a swerving ending toward “Yup, this is all real!” clicked quite together for me, but I think the movie spends so much time in its final act in that lane that we’re meant to accept that ending.
But what about you? Did you watch Horse Girl? Which ending do you think is the “real” one? Discuss in the comments!
Image sources (in order of posting): Netflix Media Center, Netflix Media Center, Netflix Media Center