Rehabilitation comes in many forms. It can be a person, place, or even a thing. For Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts), it’s a wild horse.
The Mustang marks the directorial debut of Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, and it’s a memorable one due to the presence and performance of Schoenaerts. Here’s an actor who doesn’t need much dialogue to transfer his feelings from the screen into the viewer’s hearts. When he stares at you, his eyes sear through the screen, making you believe every dirt road in his past.
You see, Roman isn’t a pleasant fella … or innocent of his crime. Andy Dufresne he is not. When we first meet him, a psychologist (the always reliable Connie Britton) is trying to peel back a single layer of Roman’s onion, but she’s not successful. You don’t know what he did, but whatever it is, the crime controls his soul like a mobster controls a city. It’s haunting, eating away at, and killing him slowly.
It’s a thankless job of cleaning up horse manure that offers him the chance to heal his past. When he spots a wild mustang banging around a small outhouse, Roman catches the ire of Myles (Bruce Dern). Before long, though, Roman is matched up with the wild mustang. Two untamed beasts trying to find their place in the world.
The genesis of The Mustang is based off real life wild mustang rehab programs in prisons across the United States. There are still six locations running today, and over 100,000 wild mustangs roaming the fields of the country. Whether Clermont-Tonnerre intended or not, this film is more than likely loosed based off a true story.
When you first see Roman, he’s a book that’s been nailed shut. This man’s demons have demons. A man constantly losing staring contests with his soul. And when he first gets matched up with Marcus, the name he eventually gives the horse, it’s not an easy meet and greet. He has to learn the ways of taming a horse, most of which he gets from an expert and fellow prisoner named Henry (Jason Mitchell). Through Myles and Henry, Roman starts to uncoil a bit in connecting with Marcus.
Does the film move in predictable patterns? Yes. But that’s not the point that Mona Fastvold, Brock Norman Brock, and Clermont-Tonnerre intended with their screenplay. The Mustang isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel of dramatic storytelling here; it’s trying to show you how the compassion of two different species can connect and forge a bond to heal, and how sometimes, an animal can teach a human how to live again.
You are willing to take that ride due to Schoenaerts. You’ve seen him in Bullhead, Rust and Bone, and The Drop, but neither of those pictures truly gave him the space to work with that he finds here. In Roman, there’s a few avenues to run down in order to create, and the Belgian actor delivers a tremendous performance that should open quite a few eyes. Many have compared him to Ryan Gosling, and they are wrong. Schoenaerts subscribes to the Mads Mikkelsen school of arts, which I like to call the less is more technique. Roman doesn’t speak a ton in this movie, but when he does, the building appears to move and it carries weight. When he loses his temper and explodes, you’ll hear it like it’s sitting right next to you.
Without his masterful lead, the film falls flat. There isn’t a false note in Schoenaerts’ work here. You need an actor of his caliber in order to believe in the friendship and bond of Roman and Marcus. If it’s not there, the movie collapses like a horse being put down.
The film does offer Dern, a seasoned and grizzled vet, the chance to apply some torque to his film persona. Myles is gruff and stern, but he’s also invested in these animals, both four-legged and two-legged mammals among them. He’s not just an angry old lion. Dern applies that sensitivity to him in a great supporting performance.
Clermont-Tonnerre does show some bravura in his camera placement and depiction of the location. You are a spectator to this personal rehab, but the director treats the dirty outskirts of Nevada like a foreign country’s private getaway in the horse-taming sequences. Without over-indulging, the filmmaker’s restraint allows you to get closer to the actors and story. Horses have never looked more romantic and honest.
There is a lot of attention paid to the personal battles of inmates and their remorse. A particularly effective scene comes between the psychologist and a group of prisoners talking about the amount of time that transpired between the thought of their crime and the actual act. The answers startle you, and are delivered with convictions.
The subplot with his daughter (Gideon Adlon) works well in providing backstory and due to the triggered silence of their interactions. In order to care a bit about Roman, one must know what he did. Another subplot involving Henry and another prisoner (Josh Stewart) feels contrived and added on for the effect of reminding us how dangerous a prison can be.
At times, The Mustang does conform to certain genre conventions, and that robs it of its overall effect. That doesn’t stop it from being an intense and soulful journey of the human spirit finding medicine in the most unlikely of places. The film shows you, carrying the precedence of real stories that you see in the credits, that the darkest of souls can find the light.
Credit the writers for not taking us completely down a path we have seen before. Part of the jewel of the film comes from its unapologetic final third that doesn’t hinder the work of the first part of the film. If you like overly sweet happy endings that ring hallow, I’d direct you to the other new release, Dumbo. If you want a raw, honest, and moving experience, stay with this one.
While it’s not the most original or easiest film to watch, The Mustang does command your attention due to the performance of Schoenaerts. You won’t forget him.