The pitch for The Mustang is about as hackneyed as it gets - a dangerous convict who hits out at everything and everyone is given a shot at redemption by working with a dangerous horse who hits out at everything and everyone, and as the man starts to tame the animal, the animal starts to tame the man. So far, so Hallmark Channel movie of the week; a story so familiar, it seems impossible it could communicate anything of interest. Except, despite its derivative underpinnings, The Mustang has been made with such craft that it transcends the clichés and works exceptionally well on its own terms. Tonally similar to recent equine-related films such as Lean on Pete (2017)
and The Rider (2017)
, whilst also covering some of the same narrative ground as Michael Mann
and David Milch
's criminally underappreciated TV show, Luck (2011)
, The Mustang touches on issues such as masculine guilt, penitentiary stoicism, and human-animal trust, but really, this is a character study. And yes, chances are everything you think might happen does happen, but the acting, the emotional beats, and the sense of authenticity all contribute to the whole, wherein it turns out the familiarity of the destination doesn't matter that much when the journey to get there is so well executed.
Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts
) is serving a 12-year bit in a Nevada jail and has just been released from solitary. He's so emotionally shut down that the prison's psychologist (Connie Britton
) can barely get him to confirm his name, let alone open up about his feelings. Assigned to "outdoor maintenance", he is to clean up the horse dung from the mustangs used in the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP), which sees a select few inmates "gentle" the animals - essentially, tame them so they can be sold at auction. Coleman keeps to himself, but is drawn to a barn in which a single horse repeatedly kicks the door. Seeing Coleman's interest, head trainer Myles (Bruce Dern
doing his Bruce Dern thing) decides to give him a chance to work with the horse, although he warns him that it's considered unbreakable, and will likely be euthanized. Naming him Marquis (although he mispronounces it as Marcus), Coleman sets about attempting to connect with Marquis in a way in which he hasn't connected with anyone or anything in many years.
Executive produced by Robert Redford
, The Mustang was initially developed through the Sundance Institute. Written by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
, Mona Fastvold
, and Brock Norman Brock
and based on de Clermont-Tonnerre's short Rabbit (2014)
, The Mustang is her feature directorial debut. As the opening and closing legends tell us, WHIP is real, with prisons across 13 states adopting it, and research showing there is a significant dip in recidivist rates amongst inmates who have worked with the horses (the rehabilitative potential of WHIP was also an important plot point in Luck).
Despite the narrative outline suggesting otherwise, The Mustang is not a sentimental film. De Clermont-Tonnerre avoids, for example, romanticising the relationship between Coleman and Marquis; they don't have some kind of profound psychic bond, rather they connect emotionally, nothing more. Their relationship is not an opportunity for glib esotericism regarding the human condition, it's a simple friendship. Belying her directorial inexperience, de Clermont-Tonnerre shows a terrific instinct for how close or how removed we should be at any given moment; at times, she stands back and allows the characters room to breathe, whilst at others, she muscles into the action. This is important when we get to the third act, as she shows remarkable (almost documentarian) directorial restraint, shooting the film's last few scenes, where the potential for melodrama at its strongest, in such a way that such melodrama is never allowed to overwhelm the smaller more realistic character beats.
In terms of acting, this is Schoenaerts's film, with his performance recalling his work in De rouille et d'os (2012)
, Maryland (2015)
, and, most obviously, his portrayal of Jacky Vanmarsenille in Rundskop (2011)
. Coleman shares a lot of characteristics with Vanmarsenille, and Schoenaerts hits many of the same beats, particularly the barely controlled temper that could erupt at any moment. The performance is all the more impressive when you consider how little dialogue Schoenaerts has, instead conveying emotion via physicality. Pay attention, for example, to his gait, which subtly changes over the course of the film in tandem with his developing arc.
Perhaps the most obvious similarity between Coleman and Vanmarsenille, however, is their connection with animals. In Rundskop, Vanmarsenille is repeatedly compared to the bulls his family rear, whether through shot composition or editing. This comparative vein is even more pronounced in The Mustang. For example, the film opens on a tight close-up of a mustang's eye, and the first time we see Coleman, it's a BCU of him opening his eyes as horse hooves play on the soundtrack. Later, there's a shot in which Coleman is reflected in Marquis's eye and a scene where both he and Marquis are pinned to the ground, facing one another. When Coleman is confined to his cell, we see him pacing back and forth and punching the wall, recalling Marquis's behaviour in the stall. Sure, none of this is subtle, but it is effective, with de Clermont-Tonnerre showing a surprising ability to communicate emotions and themes via pure visuals.
Thematically, of course, the main theme is the similarity between man and beast - Coleman and Marquis are both wild and unruly, and both must be brought to a condition of amiability. Within this, the other big theme is the danger of losing self-control. A crucial scene in this respect, and one of the best in the film, is an anger management class with the psychologist, who asks each prisoner how long passed between the thought of their crime and its execution, and how long have they been in jail. None of the men say there was anything more than a few seconds between thought and deed. The point is clear; a split-second decision has landed then in prison for years. It could be a scene out of any number of prison documentaries (it would have fit right into The Work (2017)
, the superb documentary about the Inside Circle program in Folsom), and it's a good example of de Clermont-Tonnerre hanging back when she needs to.
Of course, the film is not perfect. For a start, for some people, the narrative beats, particularly the penitentiary redemption arc, will just be too familiar. The fact is that we've all seen pretty much everything of which The Mustang is composed, and for some, that aspect will simply be off-putting. De Clermont-Tonnerre does a fine job of sidestepping almost all of the clichés inherent in this kind of story, but the mere fact that there are so many clichés to avoid in the first place will discourage some people. A bigger issue is a subplot involving Dan (Josh Stewart
), Coleman's cellmate, who blackmails him into smuggling ketamine into the prison. This subplot feels like it's been imported from another film entirely, but in incomplete form - it's introduced late in proceedings, is only half-heartedly explored, and ends without much in the way of resolution. These scene are the weakest and the most inauthentic in the film. The narrative needs Coleman to be at a certain place at a certain time, and de Clermont-Tonnerre uses this storyline to facilitate that. But there were far more organic ways to have accomplished this without resorting to a subplot that is so tonally divorced from everything around it.
These few issues notwithstanding, I thoroughly enjoyed The Mustang. On paper, this is a clichéd social protest film with a classic redemption arc, but de Clermont-Tonnerre fashions it into something far more emotionally authentic. She embraces, for the most part, non-judgmental restraint, simplicity, and sincerity, and more than once communicates meaning via purely visual statements. She's working perilously close to cliché, but her intimate direction and Schoenaerts's committed performance allow the film to remain always genuine and respectful. Basing the drama around the real-world WHIP, de Clermont-Tonnerre suggests that, as in other restorative therapies, when you treat someone like a human being, oftentimes, you will find their humanity. And the irony, and the film's most fascinating and beautifully handled trope, is that Coleman's humanity could only be found, drawn out, and nurtured by an animal.