Netflix’s Horse Girl offers an empathetic look at mental illness. Or maybe an empathetic look at alien abduction. Or maybe both? The movie, starring Alison Brie, who also co-wrote it with filmmaker Jeff Baena, tells the story of craft store salesperson Sarah, who loves making lanyards, watching her favorite supernatural detective show, and visiting her old horse, Willow. The movie starts out as a sweetly sad story of this lonely young woman, then it all takes a turn when Sarah finds that she’s experiencing strange gaps in time, has mysterious bruises on her body, and that her sleepwalking habit is taking her into weirder and weirder territory. Here’s how it all goes down.
What happened at the end of Horse Girl?
The movie is ambiguous as to what really happened to Sarah, especially after her first night at the mental health facility. After a nurse leaves her room, Sarah follows through the still-open door and exits the hospital—only for the camera to pan up and reveal another Sarah still in the hospital room, watching herself below. From then on, it’s tough to know what’s real and what isn’t, and whether her belief that she’s a repeated alien abductee is true, a pure product of mental illness, or if she’s both being abducted and experiencing some form of psychosis.
When she first arrives at the hospital, Sarah tells her counselor (played by producer Jay Duplass) about her family history of mental illness: her grandmother heard and saw things that weren’t real, while her mother experienced severe depression and died by suicide. And some of what we see happening after Sarah makes her escape from the facility seems unlikely to be the work of aliens, like the matching suits she crafts for herself and her horse from an improbably long bolt of fabric, and the scene in which she has sex with her one-time date, Darren, only for him to transform into the lead actor from her favorite TV show.
But other occurrences are less clearly the result of psychosis, and the film can definitely be read as suggesting that Sarah really is a victim of alien malfeasance. When she wakes up, somehow back in the hospital, she sees that she’s sharing the room with a young woman she recognizes from her abduction and visions. Upon talking to her, Sarah discovers that the woman wound up in the facility after experiencing major time gaps. This definitely tilts things towards the alien abduction theory.
At the end of the film, Sarah believes that she’s part of a time loop, and is in fact her own grandmother. She dons a ‘50s-style dress, steals her former horse, and heads into the woods. The last thing we see is Sarah levitating into the sky—though whether she’s being abducted by aliens or experiencing a break with reality, it’s hard to tell. The levitation can also be read as a metaphor for Sarah’s death, perhaps by suicide.
What has Alison Brie said about the movie?
If you left the film feeling a bit confused, that’s probably just what Brie intended. In an interview with Vulture, the Community and Mad Men actor suggested that she wanted Horse Girl to spark discussion of its mysteries. “If there’s not a Reddit message board about this movie, I would be shocked and frankly appalled,” she said. “I want the Reddit fans to know that we did a lot of Reddit-based research for this movie. We’re all about it.”
Her Vulture interview lends credence to both the mental health and alien abduction readings of the movie. Brie described struggling with depression, and her own grandmother’s experience with paranoid schizophrenia. “In my own personal struggles with depression, I know the feeling of being helpless, feeling powerless, feeling alone. Right before I wrote this, I went through my deepest bout of depression in my life,” she told Vulture. “I started to realize this is much more about my fear of having mental illness in my bloodline. When will it come out? And will I have the awareness to know when it’s happening?”
But Brie also backed up the alien abduction stuff, too. The film she wanted to make, she told Vulture, “ is about this woman who has this history of mental illness, and what if something real started happening to her? What is something really wild, really scary, started happening and she didn’t have the ability to know whether it was real or not?
The revealing part there, of course, is the “something real” bit, which suggests that some of the wild stuff that goes down in Horse Girl isn’t a product of Sarah’s mind. Brie also said that she personally believes aliens are real. “I definitely believe in aliens,” she said. “I’ve read enough stories now about people being abducted, and the through lines are amazing. I’m not a crazy conspiracy theorist, though. I’m a low-key conspiracy theorist, on the DL.”
“Definitely. Our hope is that people have myriad interpretations of the movie,” Brie told Vulture. “We certainly have a theory about what we think is going on, but I’d venture to say that even Baena and I have slightly different takes about what the truth is.”
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