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Let's Talk about the Confusing Ending of Netflix's 'Horse Girl'

This post contains spoilers for Horse Girl

The title of Alison Brie's new Netflix movieHorse Girl is a bit of a misdirect. It sounds a bit precious, maybe a touch unhinged, but in a quirky way. (As a girl who used to ride horses, I had a lot of people joking that it's my biopic.)  But Horse Girl has more in common with Peter Shaffer's play Equus than any other equine-related material in that it's not really about horses but rather human psychosis. The film, directed by Jeff Baena who co-wrote it with Brie, is about a woman experiencing a mental break that toys with her sense of reality, and it builds to an intentionally ambiguous conclusion that is nonetheless rattling. 

Brie plays Sarah, whose life at first seems odd, if not entirely askew. She works in a craft store and spends her days going to Zumba class and her evenings making lanyards and watching her favorite supernatural procedural. She frequently checks in on Willow, her beloved horse now owned by a disinterested teen. It's soon clear something deeper is amiss in Sarah's psyche. She sleepwalks. Her dreams transport her to an all-white space occupied by two other sleeping people. She finds bruises on her side and scratches on the wall. 

Baena and Brie slowly reveal that Sarah's family has a history of mental illness, mimicking Brie's own lineage, which inspired the project. To the audience, it's initially evident that Sarah must be suffering the same fate as her grandmother, to whom she bears a striking likeness. (Brie's own grandmother lived with paranoid schizophrenia.) Sarah becomes preoccupied with the idea that she's being abducted by aliens and is possibly a clone of her lookalike ancestor. Her mania ends in a naked breakdown at the store where she works, which lands her in a hospital.

horse girl
Netflix

As she speaks to the therapist (Jay Duplass), it seems like she's taking steps toward getting help. But that all changes when she's left alone for the night. In a disorienting 10-minute sequence, one version of Sarah leaves her ward while another stays behind watching from above. She goes on a hallucinatory journey where reality and her personal fictions blend into one another. Cloaked in a pastel, ninja-style costume, she moves through slightly altered locations from her life, eventually ending up in an alien realm witnessing shadowy figures probing her own body. When she wakes up, she's in the bed of her roommate at the hospital and they are holding hands. 

The girl (Dylan Gelula), the same one who has been appearing in her visions, is initially horrified, but as they talk they come to realize they've shared some of the same delusions. It's enough proof Sarah needs to decide that what she's experiencing is real. After she's discharged she goes home, makes herself up like her grandmother, and goes to the stable where she absconds with Willow. They walk to a golf course where Sarah drops Willow's lead, takes off her shoes, and lies on the ground. Sarah's body is lifted aloft by a light in the sky. In the last shot, she's gone as Willow patiently grazes. 

Brie and Baena designed this ending to be puzzled over. In an interview with Vulture, the star said, "If there’s not a Reddit message board about this movie, I would be shocked and frankly appalled." In a move that's sure to stir some debate, the filmmakers insert details that lend credence to the idea that perhaps what Sarah is experiencing is happening in reality. For instance, in the first scene of the movie Sarah's friend at the craft store Joan (Molly Shannon) looks up from their conversation to see just the tail end of a horse walk by. By the end, it appears that she was watching Sarah, the person to whom she was talking, walk Willow to their ultimate fate. So does that mean Sarah is abducted by aliens at the end? Possibly, but it's also more likely that we're watching whatever is happening in Sarah's mind rather than what's happening in the real world.

For the first three quarters of the film, Brie plays someone fighting against herself. By the end, she exhibits an unsettling serenity, having embraced the theories that once disturbed her. Is this liberation for Sarah? Or is she lost, giving over to her disease? Horse Girl doesn't answer these questions; it wants to leave you in the discomfort of not knowing.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.