Matthias Schoenaerts tames a horse – and his own heart – in this sensitive, understatedly masculine drama.
An expansion of director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s short film Rabbit, The Mustang deals with a prisoner’s rehabilitation through caring for the eponymous animal. However, for her feature-length debut, Clermont-Tonnerre chooses to Americanize and masculinize the concept. The Mustang is based on a real-life program wherein mustangs are tamed by inmates and auctioned off to local law enforcement. The program has two benefits: the funds from the auctions are used to help pay for mustang conservation efforts, and the prisoners are able to learn skills and find something meaningful in their incarceration – prisoners who participate in this program are less likely to re-offend upon release.
Stories about emotionally damaged people finding redemption through horses are common bordering on the cliché, and a good chunk of the audience will have guessed many of the plot points just through the synopsis. The characters and plot points have all been done before: the protagonist, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts), is antisocial, and the horse, who he calls Marquis (Roman finds the word in a book and pronounces it like “Marcus”), is presumed untamable. The rest of the cast and Roman’s interaction with them are just as predictable: the program leader, Myles (Bruce Dern) is cantankerous, but believes in Roman; fellow inmate Henry (Jason Mitchell) is charming and helps Roman open up to Marquis and other people. Perhaps the most familiar subplot is Roman’s relationship with his daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon), who resents him for the assault he committed on her mother. From the first 15 minutes of the film, it is clear where this movie will go, and the path it takes is the expected one.
However, while much of The Mustang’s story is familiar, the film manages to keep itself from feeling like a retread by avoiding melodrama and sentimentality. A lesser “redemption” film would try to guide the audience’s emotions via inspirational (read: cheesy) monologues, lurid flashbacks of Roman’s crimes, and an overbearing score. Thankfully, Clermont-Tonnerre eschews these TV-movie techniques, opting instead to let the story speak for itself.
At its core, The Mustang is a story about a man who must overcome toxic masculinity so he can have a life worth living. For the first half of the film, the only emotions that Roman can display are complete detachment or unadulterated rage. With the character near mute for the first act, Schoenaerts’ portrayal is all physical. Roman’s mannerisms are an interesting mix of swagger and insecurity, until he gets angry – then he transforms into a creature of pure id. Schoenaerts does a great job slowly showing Roman opening up to Marquis, eventually leading to a tenderness with the animal that is feels truly natural. Roman’s emotional maturation eventually leads to him asking his daughter for forgiveness; it’s clear this is the first time the man has been emotionally honest, and Schoenaerts’ performance is raw and powerful.
While much of The Mustang’s story is familiar, the film manages to keep itself from feeling like a retread by avoiding melodrama and sentimentality.
Despite the film’s singular focus on Roman, there is great chemistry between the cast. The inmates in the program play well off each other- exuding a masculine camaraderie that is a healthy contrast to the rest of the prison’s toxic masculinity. But it’s Roman’s relationship with his daughter that is most interesting: from their first scene (where Roman mistakes another woman for Martha) there is palpable tension, Martha triggering Roman’s rage from the moment he sees her. This comes to a head in one of the most memorable scenes of the movie when Martha argues to Roman that they should sell their house, which Roman finds unthinkable. When a fellow inmate asks if they want to take a commemorative photo – a service the prison offers – Martha forces Roman into it. As they pose in front of a tacky beach backdrop, the pair snipe at each other with subdued anger as the photographer tries in vain to get them to pose. The juxtaposition of a surreal situation with a mundane argument (and the resulting bad picture) is an effective and hilarious moment in an otherwise sincere movie.
Visually, The Mustang is a triumph – no small feat in a film that mostly takes place in a prison. While cinematographer Ruben Impens’ style tends to stay on the more naturalistic side, there are flashes of formalism: inmates pass notes and objects via wires, looking like ethereal creatures; Roman is sent to solitary confinement, and his time spent studying horses is colored with an otherworldly orange light. The most visually striking scene of the film takes place during a rainstorm that forces the prisoners to keep the horses in the prison’s kitchen for safety. As the lights flicker on and off we see glimpses of the horses’ panicked bodies and the prisoner’s worried faces; the scene immediately switches to the next day with the kitchen filled with trampled food and feces. It’s impressive how a few flashes of imagery can fully communicate the chaos of the situation and its aftermath.
While it’s impressive that a Franco-Belgian production can feel so undeniably America, that’s beside the point. The Mustang is a film about forgiveness and coming to term with your emotions, issues that extend beyond the confines of the United States. Mustangs may be a quintessentially American animal, but The Mustang is a refreshingly universal story.