The Mustang: Even The Hardest Have Humanity
Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre gives fresh perspective to the American West with her feature-length debut, The Mustang, a true story about convicts breaking horses as part of their rehabilitation. Poetic and elemental, Clermont-Tonnerre creates a quiet knockout that is physically and emotionally intensified by the powerhouse performance from Matthias Shoenaerts.
Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a convict in a rural Nevada prison who struggles to escape his violent past, is required to participate in an "outdoor maintenance" program as part of his state-mandated social rehabilitation. Spotted by a no-nonsense veteran trainer (Bruce Dern) and helped by an outgoing fellow inmate and trick rider (Jason Mitchell), Roman is accepted into the selective wild horse training section of the program, where he finds his own humanity in gentling an especially unbreakable mustang.
The Mustang blazes down the same trail as 2018’s Lean on Pete and The Rider, creating a trifecta for the man-and-his-horse film. It’s not quite as poetically riveting as The Rider or as subversive as Lean on Pete, but it will satisfy fans of either. The freshness it brings to the table is its interesting prison slant, which is a legit form of rehabilitation in select states like Nevada where the film takes place, and a type of prison program that few are likely aware of. It’s a bit more bristly and untamed than other horse films and a bit softer and more touching than your average prison film, making it a pretty unique slice of solemn, sun soaked indie filmmaking.
The Mustang is a quietly unruly character study first and foremost, but it also raises awareness to these particular prison reform programs, which studies have shown immensely increase the likelihood of societal reintegration, and the fact that opportunities such as these are slowly disappearing. The film, much like these programs, seeks to show how breaking horses can crack the animalistic veneer of its convicts, uncovering the buried humanity within. For this purpose, it focuses on Roman Coleman (Schoenaerts) as its subject, a convict with a silly name whose forced rehabilitation in the “outdoor maintenance” program causes him to, quite literally, see himself and his humanity in a wild stallion.
Roman is the type of misanthropic prisoner who intentionally and continuously get themselves locked in solitary confinement because “they don’t like other people,” but his days of quiet solitude are coming to an end. A psychologist (played by Connie Britton) is dead-set on getting him primed for release, but getting Roman to speak is like trying to get a horse to talk. In fact, Roman’s heavy breathing/sighing seem to showcase his animalistic nature, which is latter reinforced when we are introduced to a deranged horse in solitude, Marquis, who will eventually become Roman’s responsibility.
Clermont-Tonnerre is not very subtle about the parallels between Roman and Marquis; they are both locked in solitary, hard and feral creatures of few utterances, and at one point, in a beautifully photographed shot, Roman can literally see himself in the reflection of the horse’s eye. An attentive viewer will see that Marquis and Roman are kindred spirits almost immediately. Their relationship is anything but easy due to their shared stubbornness, but its turbulence yields some pretty rewarding comical and touching moments.
The editing is really tight, and it herds everything into a neat package. There are some really great smash and action cuts that springboard the energy of the previous scene into the next, keeping the energy raised and the momentum pushing forward. The cast is really great, particularly Jason Mitchell, who fills the screen with warmth and charisma, and Matthias Shoenaerts, who I’ve already mentioned several times but definitely deserves loads of recognition (and maybe even an Oscar nod). Bruce Dern also gives solid support, filling in as a paternal figure to Roman with naturalistic ease.
Overall, The Mustang has some giddy-up, and it will takes you places if you’re properly situated in the saddle. Even if you’re not riding with it for the full 90-minutes, the gorgeous cinematography and rich performances will prove to be rewarding to any and all. The film does flounder a bit in its third act, and there’s a typical prison drug smuggling sub-plot that I could’ve lived without, but all these elements service the story and Roman’s character, so its hard to be too mad.
Recommendation: Fans of Lean on Pete and The Rider will find a lot to love here; however, anyone interested in obscure true stories, prison/horse films, and/or poetic character studies about the masculine sensitivity will find something to latch onto.
Rating: 4 wild horses outta 5.
What do you think? Are you excited for this? Are horse films the new fad? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!