Prisoner Roman Coleman is a violent animal, or at least that’s how he sees himself. Currently serving twelve years in a Nevada State Penitentiary for a crime that isn’t explained until The Mustang‘s midway point, Coleman doesn’t view his life as worth redeeming. For the most part, he’s quiet and restrained, a tight-lipped conversationist who shies away from getting provoked unless pushed too hard. Then Matthias Schoenaerts reveals his impressive acting chops, switching from calm to viscerally angry to remorseful in the span of seconds. No wonder he bonds so well with The Mustang’s titular horses.
As director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s cinematic feature debut, The Mustang is a melancholic and visually stunning entry, albeit a predictable one. Vast shots of the Nevada desert portray the landscape as Western spaciousness and free for wild mustangs to roam— a rather romanticized freedom, given the genre’s history with Hollywood. It’s a deliberate contrast to the prison complex which feels dank and claustrophobic. Not so much nightmare-fueling claustrophobia but much closer to purgatory, a prison is a place of solace and judgment over one’s crimes. In Roman’s case, it’s a crime he accepted but has yet to believe himself capable of repenting.
This detaches Roman from the outside world but he is required by law to participate in the prison’s “outdoor maintenance” program while serving time. His only connection outside the complex is his estranged and pregnant daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon), who’s moving east with her boyfriend. Their conversations go about as well as you’d expect. Martha wants Roman to sign over custody of his mother’s house to her which will be used to fund her boyfriend’s business. Roman doesn’t want that, perhaps too afraid to give up the last remnant of his old life and possibly because he worries about Martha’s future. There aren’t many of these scenes but one in particular, which slowly pans into Roman’s face as he tearfully acknowledges the impact of his crime on their relationship, is remarkably well done.
No, the real meat of this story is Roman’s involvement with the Correction Facility’s Wild Horse Inmate Program, a real-life program that sees convicts train wild horses for upcoming auctions. Led by aging and cranky, yet poignant, horse trainer Myles (Bruce Dern), this process acts as something of a dual rehabilitation, taming the wild horses and their riders to be more presentable for society. At first, Roman really struggles to adjust in this program, even getting uncomfortably physical with one horse in an encounter that leaves them both bruised and injured. But you can tell he relates to the mustangs emotionally as a being who just wants to be left alone and lashes out at the world when it gets too close for comfort.
The Mustang really shines when it’s just Roman and the horse, whom he later names Marquis, struggling to bond. He wants the horse to listen, to obey, but Roman’s patience isn’t exactly the best in these circumstances. Marquis has a mind of its own and even when a fellow prison trainer, Henry (Jason Mitchell, from Detroit and Mudbound), points out how to read a horse by its ears, he just doesn’t roll over. But the moment these characters finally click, when Marquis nuzzles Roman’s head at a point he deems the task too daunting to handle, really works.
Unfortunately, once the film steps outside the dynamic between Roman, Myles, and the horses, there isn’t much story to tell. There’s a subplot about Roman’s cellmate threatening his daughter unless he steals some medical drugs; it dips in and out of memory until something happens, which feels shocking, then ends about as sudden as it begins. And the third act veers straight into predictable tropes. You can easily predict which scenes will produce which character reactions in accordance with Hollywood storytelling, summed up as “something goes wrong for man and horse”. Honestly, I saw better subversions of the wild horse taming scenario in DreamWorks’ Spirit movie from 2002.
But clichés don’t necessarily equal bad, at least so long as they’re treated as a natural part of the story. So while things get predictable, I don’t think they disrupt the film’s tone nor Roman’s growth. They do, however, end abruptly, capping off the third act in the way you expect and then moving directly to the conclusion. It gives off the impression that The Mustang, upon realizing it concluded the most endearing plot thread, couldn’t think of anywhere else to go. This might be a prison drama with Western iconography and themes of redemption but it’s not exactly Shawshank.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Third act clichés aside, The Mustang still makes for a solid character drama. A lot of it comes down to Matthias Schoenaerts’ and Bruce Dern’s performances, as well as the horse training scenes, many of which succeed at providing strong non-verbal emotional reactions. There’s a deep vulnerability to Roman’s character that stands in stark contrast against the natural desert iconography, further emphasizing his isolation and regret. Any film about a man and a horse’s bond will unsurprisingly touch the average moviegoer’s inner animal lover. True they’re both wild animals, but they complete each other.