Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Stars: Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruce Dern, Gideon Adlon
At the beginning of Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature debut, on-screen text advises us that there are upwards of 100,000 wild mustangs roaming the United States, and that many of these are rounded up and captured; some sent to prisons to be broken by inmates, others euthenised by the government. The statement, combined with the following footage of these magnificent beasts against a backdrop of the majestic West, seems intended to be read as a damnation of the practice. But The Mustang ultimately champions the program – at least in terms of pairing these animals with inmates for their mutual benefit.
This might sound, therefore, like a confused film. Instead I’d counter that its one that recognises gradation. A film that knows there’s good in the bad, and vice versa.
Matthias Schoenaerts roils as Roman Colman; prisoner of the state of Nevada who, by his own admission, is ‘not good with people’. He’s done what he can to remain in solitude and speaks only when thoroughly badgered to. He’s a hulking, seething mass of a man. We don’t know why he’s in prison or how long he’s been in the system. Roman is due to be reintegrated into the larger prison populous. The prison psychologist (Connie Britton) thinks it’d be a good idea to get him working outdoors, and he is assigned to the mustang training program under the grousing tutalege of veteran rancher Myles (an exceptional turn from Bruce Dern). Trainees have only 12 weeks to break their horses before they are to be sold at auction.
As one might readily expect, The Mustang charts a mirrored progression between man and beast. Roman is assigned Myles’ most troublesome captive. Their relationship is to be an uneasy one, as both man and horse wrestle with frustration. de Clermont-Tonnerre’s choice to keep much of Roman’s history (particularly his crime) bottled up serves the picture well. Reveals come through observation. Tells in his behaviour. Changes in his mood. Then, during a visit from his daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon) comes a landslide, provoked by his work with the horse. Schoenaerts’ performance is stifled, burdened and then – during this scene – nakedly vulnerable. He’s proven himself, internationally, as a fine actor. Roman is one of his greatest achievements.
Roman’s exile from the world is self-imposed. The government has punished him with a physical prison; he’s built himself an emotional one – a deliberate act of self-abasement, self-punishment and self-destruction. Martha seems to have forgiven him his crime. He has been less forthcoming with himself. That we only discover it midway through the picture once he’s already elicited our sympathies is a canny move. de Clermont-Tonnerre slyly turns the mirror of judgement back on us. Are we still on board with this guy? she seems to ask. Has anything really changed?
Roman’s tension is in his shoulders. Experienced trainer Henry (Jason Mitchell) tells Roman so as he struggles to tame the mustang, whom he names Marquis. As the picture progresses we are able to gauge a change in Roman. In his posture, and in his interactions with others. Hell, at one point he even starts a conversation.
There’s a tenderness in the face of volatile masculinity about The Mustang. de Clermont-Tonnerre observes Roman just as she does the wild horses, with a kind of curious and melancholy fascination. These animals are soulful, and the film’s real position becomes quite clear. The positive effect Roman and Marquis have on one another is rendered with quiet profundity. The Mustang teeters on the brink of pushing too hard and too far with this, but de Clermont-Tonnerre is confidently in control and keeps her film from crossing over into the melodramatic or the cornball. It’s a balancing act that brings to mind Chloe Zhao’s equally sympathetic and modern take on frustrated masculinity in the western; 2017’s The Rider.
Still, the urge to bolt rises up in the third act when Myles hands Roman some particularly convenient information. One assumes, for a split second, that The Mustang is about to make a hard turn into the fantastic. Once again, however, de Clermont-Tonnerre keeps control, steering her film down a more fitting route.
In the margins of the film are little observations about the prison system itself, and the strange role of freedom in the American mythos, from the constitution right down to the individual. Inmates encouraged to sing the national anthem look strained when contemplating the “land of the free”. Meanwhile, before the final credits roll, both Roman and Marquis will have to confront their own definitions of the term.
This isn’t about journeys beginning or ending, but about interactions and intersections. Man and beast have a profound effect on one another during the film’s tight 96 minutes. Both exit the other end changed. The Mustang is well-observed, empathetic, and one of the best releases of the year so far.