The Mustang | Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre | March 15. 2019
One can spend decades locked up behind bars for a violent life-altering decision that they made in a split second. This is a sobering conversation held in director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s new film The Mustang, posed by Northern Nevada Correction Center prison psychologist (Connie Britton) to her patients, which includes Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts, Red Sparrow), a man who only knows violence.
This violence is what has caused Roman to spend his life behind bars, often in isolation away from the general population. During his time in jail, he’s missed seeing his daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon) grow up, leading to a lonely and isolated life for the still suffering man facing the aftermath as a consequence of a rash, violent, and split-second outburst.
With so many wild horses roaming free in the Western United States, the government uses the prisons to help round some of them up, using prisoners to train the horses to make them ready to be sold for auction. This prison’s division is overseen by Myles (Bruce Dern), who isn’t sure that Roman is a good fit for the program, especially considering that during his first training session with his horse (who he named Marquis), he becomes so frustrated that he resorts to repeatedly punching the animal. After trial and error, the two start to click and Roman begins to form a connection with his horse. It may be cliché, but as much as he is training the horse, the horse is also training him.
While this film doesn’t take the viewer down a totally new path in the familiar prisoner-looking-for-a-newfound-outlook-or-redemption story, Clermont-Tonnerre directs with a kind and caring eye and it helps that the film is led by Matthias Schoenaerts, who is quietly becoming one of the most reliable working actors at the moment. Schoenaerts is able to simultaneously play a character of untamed wrath and anger but also show hidden depths of warmth and caring that is meant to represent the path for redemption and road to recovery in all prisoners. While most people view them as untamed beasts (just like the horses), this is supposed to be a place of reconciliation and rehabilitation.
This is Schoenaerts’ show, as the meat of the film is spent following his inner turmoil and time spent trying to train Marquis. The rest of the supporting cast is given limited time but features some good supporting work from Dern, Adlon, and Jason Mitchell (most recently SuperFly and Detroit) as a fellow inmate in the program who helps get Roman caught up to speed. Sadly, Connie Britton is all but wasted in her role as the prison’s psychologist.
Not all the plot points that are introduced are given satisfactory conclusions or explanations and it doesn’t always subvert your expectations. And although The Mustang offers many of the expected metaphors and messages that you’d expect from a prison drama involving a man forming a relationship with a horse, it does so in such a sincere fashion that you can’t help but be moved by it, especially by Schoenaerts’ performance.