Directed by: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Premise: A violent convict (Matthias Schoenaerts) enters into a rehabilitation program in which he and other inmates tame wild horses. In the process of training the animal, he learns empathy and patience.
What Works: The Mustang is primarily a character piece about masculinity, violence, and self-control. The movie takes place in a high security prison and nearly the entire cast is male. These violent criminals are placed in a rodeo setting and this film has one foot in the western, a genre that has historically dealt with masculinity and significantly shaped the culture’s view of manhood. The story centers upon Roman, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who has been behind bars for over a decade following a brutal assault on his wife. He’s enrolled in the state’s wild mustang training program and Roman’s interactions with the horse force him to confront his quick temper and propensity for violence. The symbolism of the movie is obvious but poignant; Roman is much like the wild horse and by learning to tame the animal he learns to control his own impulses. A lot of westerns are about freedom and that’s the case here but in The Mustang the prison is both physical and cerebral; Roman is incarcerated but he is also imprisoned by his inability to control himself. Matthias Schoenaerts is terrific in the role. He’s a bundle of anger and regret, especially in the beginning of the film, but Schoenaerts finds the dignity in a man who has done terrible things. The Mustang is well shot. The filmmakers capture the open space of the western landscape and then obstruct it with the bars and fencing of the prison. The filmmakers also use parallel action and juxtapose Roman and his horse in ways that effectively visualize the themes of the movie. The Mustang also avoids sentimentality. A story like this could easily become maudlin but the filmmakers show restraint and thereby retain a great deal of credibility in their portrait of masculinity.
What Doesn’t: From one end of this story to the other, Roman goes through a severe transformation. At the opening of the picture he is closed and unwilling to engage with other people but by the end he allows himself to connect. Some of Roman’s transformation is quite sudden. The story could have used a few more decisive moments that would landmark Roman’s character arc. Other parts of The Mustang feel similarly abrupt. Without any previous equestrian experience, Roman becomes an accomplished rider. He also has an ongoing conflict with one of the prison gangs but this doesn’t really cost Roman anything. A story like this is about the struggle but The Mustang doesn’t put enough obstacles in Roman’s path or require him to make choices that define his rehabilitation.
Bottom Line: The Mustang is an excellent character study. Despite the shortcomings of the storytelling, the movie is handsomely produced and offers a compelling portrait of a man struggling with his own nature.
Episode: #746 (April 21, 2019)