THE HORSE RAGER
Movie Review – The Mustang
Review by Paul Preston
In six U.S. states, there’s a federal program in place to capture wild mustangs in the wild and tame them in a battle to fight overpopulation. The horses are tamed in correctional facilities by inmates before being auctioned off in a two-fold program that also helps the prisoner’s reformation. Horses being used to make hardened men feel useful and valued. If you think I’m describing a Hallmark Channel movie…well, it could go that way, but thankfully first-time director Laure de Clermont-Tennerre has a more lyrical film in store.
The convict at the heart of The Mustang is Roman Coleman, played by Matthias Schoenaerts. He’s serving a dozen years and is admitted into the mustang rehab program by Bruce Dern’s character Myles (Dern has specialized in crusty characters in his later career, and he’s especially crusty here). Hard-edged Roman has a hard time adjusting to allowing himself to care for an animal and is assisted by a seasoned trainer Henry, in the form of the always-welcome-to-see-in-a-movie Jason Mitchell. This storyline is coupled with frequent visits to the prison by Roman’s daughter, with whom he has an equally troubled relationship.
The wild horse as metaphor for a man’s inner turmoil doesn’t feel new here, so the question is how well does de Clermont-Tennerre and team present it? Admirably. Excitingly? Well, you might want to look somewhere else for that, but there’s a haunting sadness that permeates the film, combined with an edge that bristles just under the surface. It never adds up to grand scenes or emotions, but it puts hooks in you that will have you re-visiting the film in your mind days later.
One move that the script does well is a slow reveal of the reasons Roman’s in prison to begin with. Showtime’s Escape from Dannemora also did this well – we got to know the characters trying to escape from prison and it wasn’t until we knew them well did we learn the horrible things that got them incarcerated in the first place. Roman’s got demons, but The Mustang offers up him first and his problems second, making things more complicated for the viewer. And complication is always appreciated.
Ruben Impens’ photography is beautiful, adding interesting contrast to a place so otherwise bleak. Both the photography and Schoenaerts seem to be right next to the horses in the training pits, lending an extra element of danger to the scenes (there doesn’t seem to be a stunt double when Schoenaerts is trying to calm down a wild stallion). The location (a Nevada state penitentiary) is effective – a sparse, colorless concrete pen, a gravesite for people who can still walk, and it’s in the middle of an equally wide and sparse desert. It’s a tricky balance – the prisoners are already isolated, but there’s a risk of further isolation if you get out of line. However, when you see who you’d be stuck in prison WITH, isolation doesn’t look so bad. This location is made all the more cruel when we see prisoners taking photos with visitors in front of a man-made beach mural.
Schoenaerts’ performance is sharp in that is never goes over the top. His pain is palpable, but never on display simply for the sake of us feeling it, too. We get it merely by HIM feeling it. Other notable cast members include Connie Britton as a jail psychologist and Gideon Adlon is Roman’s daughter, whose performance gets better as the film goes along, merely as more information about their relationship is revealed.
In the end, The Mustang is about Roman’s redemption. Again, the metaphor here seems familiar, but watching Roman’s layers peel is worth watching under de Clermont-Tennerre’s artful eye.
Directed by: Laure de Clermont-Tennerre
Release Date: March 15, 2019
Run Time: 96 Minutes
Distributor: Focus Features