Movie Review: ‘THE MUSTANG’ is wildly cinematic equine therapy

Matthias Schoenaerts in THE MUSTANG. Courtesy of Focus Features.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

THE MUSTANG

Rated R, 96 minutes

Directed by: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Gideon Adlon, Bruce Dern, Josh StewartConnie Britton

The greatest strength of co-writer-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s THE MUSTANG is its ability to package its enlightened message about prison reformation and nature conservation inside a thoughtful, contemplative character-driven narrative. This story about a violent convict and the wild mustang he attempts to tame sheds light on its necessary subjects, drawing delicate, nuanced visual and thematic parallels between human and horse. While not entirely subtle in its aim, the imprint its sentiments make is heartfelt, haunting and hopeful.

Prisoner Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a man of few words. Not only does his massive, hulking physique make for an intimidating presence, his laconic, brooding temperament doesn’t help matters either. He’s a caged beast doing stints in and out of isolation. His cold exterior hides profound sadness buried deep within. Due to a mix of self-abnegation and frustration, his relationship with his pregnant daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon) is tenuous at best. She’s desperately trying to better her life by selling her grandmother’s home and moving away, which will drive them even further apart. Relief, however, appears when the prison’s psychologist (Connie Britton) places him in a rehabilitation program training wild mustangs for the workforce.

Roman meets his match, or spiritual soulmate of sorts, in the form of a cantankerous equine – a lost cause kept in an isolated enclosed pen, kicking and battering the door. Program leader Myles (Bruce Dern) has labeled the horse “crazed” and “spooked,” and with only twelve weeks to break and sell him at a high price at auction, it will be a challenge. With the help of a jovial, charismatic fellow inmate, Henry (Jason Mitchell), Roman learns what it takes to train Marquis (played by animal actors Luke, Max and Buck) and, in so doing, become human again. Only it won’t be an easy transition as Roman’s orally-fixated cellmate Dan (Josh Stewart) poses a problem by blackmailing him for drugs.

Matthias Schoenaerts and Gideon Adlon in THE MUSTANG. Courtesy of Focus Features.

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, along with co-screenwriters Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock, organically acclimates us to the prison climate gradually and ramps up the drama. The film is almost a two-hander between Schoenaerts and the horse actors. We first meet the feral four-legged creature out on the range, quietly hanging out with his fellow mustangs, then rounded up and sent to the penitentiary. That tangible loss of freedom then transfers to Roman’s claustrophobic lifestyle. The unfolding story shows the two facing different hardships and the ensuing trust that forms, bonding their uncontrollable, often volatile spirits together.

de Clermont-Tonnerre, along with cinematographer Ruben Impens, augments the narrative with striking, indelible imagery and emotional electricity. When Roman is first unexpectedly nuzzled by Marquis, it’s shot in a tight close-up during Roman’s emotional breakdown. Dan and Roman’s drug deal is shot in silhouette, emphasizing shady dealings. Direction, cinematography, and editor Géraldine Mangenot’s clean cuts make the prisoners’ slow-mo ride formation a visual symphony, connoting the freedom and impactful satisfaction they’d been lacking for so long being locked up.

Since the material lends itself to quiet introspection, Schoenaerts translates his character’s scarred psychological state and yearnings with an effortless ease and without any false notes. It’s transformative work from an actor at the top of his game. His movie star good looks practically disappear as he slips into his character’s skin. Adlon, who wowed many of us with her dynamic range in BLOCKERS, also turns in a tremendous performance as the hurt party to Roman’s rage – the collateral damage of his crimes. She’s in full control of her scenes with Schoenaerts, demonstrating restraint and reflection within a small amount of screen time.

Though the recent herd of equine cinematic therapy, films like THE RIDER and LEAN ON PETE, showcases how horses can heal, THE MUSTANG reins in the concept a bit differently, trotting out an graceful portrait about second chances, redemption and hope.

Grade: B

THE MUSTANG opens on March 15.

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