It will never cease to amaze me when a first-time feature director unleashes something as confident and sure-handed as Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s The Mustang, which joins an unexpected series of horse-related films in the last year (The Rider, Lean on Pete). While those films dealt with much younger protagonists and their relationship to horses, The Mustang concerns itself with a fully grown person in the form of convict Roman Coleman (the great Matthias Schoenaerts of Rust and Bone and The Danish Girl), who is bad news from the first time we see him, with seemingly little hope of redemption or rehabilitation.
Incarcerated in an isolated Nevada prison, Roman seems like he’s built of violence. He’s a tightly wound coil ready to explode at the slightest provocation. The opening scene features him being interviewed by a well-meaning psychologist (Connie Britton), and it’s clear he’d rather risk bodily harm than answer questions about what’s going on inside his mind or why he committed the senseless act that put him in prison in the first place. Part of his required rehabilitation program is “outdoor maintenance” on a horse farm adjacent to the prison (he’s basically shoveling shit all day), where a few of his fellow prisoners get to work breaking wild mustangs that have been brought in from the surrounding areas in the hopes of domesticating them and selling them at auction.
Roman notices that one of these horses is being kept in its own version of solitary confinement, lashing out at the doors that keep it penned in. Likely sensing a kindred spirit, he approaches the animal and finds that it somewhat accepts his presence in close proximity. The seasoned trainer in charge of the program (Bruce Dern) decides to give Roman a chance in the wild horse training program to see if he can break this seemingly unbreakable horse, perhaps taming Roman a bit in the process. The metaphor may seem a little too on the nose, but the way Schoenaerts and his director work to bring these two wild beings together is particularly special.
Roman’s road is rough from every angle, so much so that his tough work with the horse might be the easiest part of his day. He’s helped out by another inmate named Henry (Jason Mitchell), who is a patient teacher, even when Roman loses his cool and actually punches his horse at one point. But far tougher are Roman’s interactions with his estranged daughter (Gideon Adlon), who comes to visit him in prison just before getting married and giving birth to her first child. Their relationship is likely too damaged to repair fully (especially when we discover what exactly put him in jail), but as they see more of each other, there’s an attempt to make something work between them that has simply never been there before. And it’s clear the patience he has learned from working with his horse has made that possible.
Nothing about The Mustang is preachy or attempts to make audiences feel differently about criminals. But it does remind us that even those we label “monsters” in our society started out as human and they have the capacity to find their humanity once again. This is a beautifully shot, exquisitely realized work that marks an early entry as one of the best films of the year so far.
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