A violent convict is given the chance to participate in a rehabilitation therapy program centered around the training of wild mustangs.
Initial release: March 15, 2019 (USA)
Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Producer: Alain Goldman
Cinematography: Ruben Impens
Screenplay: Laure from Clermont-Tonnerre, Mona Lerche, Brock Norman Brock
Film synopsis :
Robert Redford may or may not be retiring from acting, but he’s keeping busy behind the camera, executive producing an inspiring horse drama starring Red Sparrow’s Matthias Schoenaerts. In The Mustang, Schoenaerts stars as a violent, unhinged convict who undergoes a unique state-mandated rehabilitation program that teaches him to tame wild horses.
The era of the modern horse film gallops on, with no signs of slowing down. With Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider” recently named Film Comment’s top movie of the year and Andrew Haigh’s “Lean on Pete” landing on more than a few critics’ end-of-year lists, it seems the special bond between a man and his horse continues to captivate indie filmmakers.
The newest entry into this growing canon is “The Mustang,” a sensitive drama from executive producer Robert Redford that will premiere at the next year’s Sundance Film Festival before a spring release from Focus Features.
The official synopsis reads: “Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a convict in a rural Nevada prison who struggles to escape his violent past, is required to participate in an ‘outdoor maintenance’ program as part of his state-mandated social rehabilitation. Spotted by a no-nonsense veteran trainer (Bruce Dern) and helped by an outgoing fellow inmate and trick rider (Jason Mitchell), Roman is accepted into the selective wild horse training section of the program, where he finds his own humanity in gentling an especially unbreakable mustang. “The Mustang” is the feature directorial debut of French actress-turned-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. She co-wrote the script with frequent Brady Corbet collaborator Mona Fastvold, as well as Brock Norman Brock, who wrote the script for Nicolas Winding-Refn’s “Bronson” with Tom Hardy.
Best known for his work in indies like “Bullhead” and Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone,” Belgian Schoenaerts recently appeared in “Red Sparrow” and “The Danish Girl.” After a long and fruitful television career, a role in a critically lauded indie could add a shot of adrenaline to a movie career for co-star Connie Britton.
Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is the kind of man who would get into a fistfight with a horse. In fact, that’s exactly what the bald-headed bruiser does the first time he’s placed in a round pen with the unruly mustang who has been assigned to tame and prepare for auction. Never mind that the stallion weighs upwards of 1,000 pounds, or – for that matter – that horses do not have fists; Roman only knows how to express himself through violence. That’s why he’s been locked up in the Northern Nevada Correction Center for the better part of a decade, and why his long prison stint has been interrupted by stretches of solitary confinement.
“I’m not good with people,” Roman growls at the prison psychologist (Connie Britton) who tries to help ease him back into the general population. It would not seem that better with animals. And yet, he recognizes himself in that one rambunctious bronco; I can not help but relate to another living creature who puts up that much of a fight. And over the course of Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s poetic and elementary feature debut, these two feral beasts will take each other as best they can.
It’s never easy to break a wild animal, but the prologue of Clermont-Tonnerre’s film wordlessly expresses how difficult it can be, as a (very) low-flying helicopter is used to steer the herd into a small pen, its blades slicing through the air just a few mere feet away from so many unkempt manes. It’s a visceral introduction – our first glimpse of the rugged Mountains that cradle the jail and cut it off from the world – and one that conveys the raw energy that’s contained by any kind of prison.
It’s the kind of barely suppressed power that Schoenaerts has embodied since his breakout performance in “Bullhead” – even in his more docile roles he often seems as though he’s threatening to burst out of his own skin. Clermont-Tonnerre’s script, co-written with Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock, taps right in that impotent rage, while also reducing Roman to a little kid who is not in control of his own emotions. It seems like a minor miracle every time he manages to grimace through an interaction without hurting himself or someone else; each instance is as warmly unnatural as the scene where a severe thunderstorm rolls over the yard, forcing all of the horses into the prison’s kitchen for safety. Schoenaerts has never been better.
This is a short but patient film that is filled with evocative imagery and always fully invested in the moment at hand (at one point, the entirety of “The National Anthem” plays as the camera watches the prisoner bristle under their tense riders), it’s easy to forgive a very spare narrative that does not always earn the change it claims to instigate in its characters.
“The Mustang” is much stronger at the start and the finish – at the extremes of its emotions – than at the navigating between them. The first scene between Roman and the horse he later names Marquis is especially powerful. It almost feels like an homage to the opening bit from “Jurassic Park,” as the stallion is stuck inside of a dark enclosure and doing serious damage to anyone dumb enough to get too close.
The prisoner is so obviously electrified by that anger that the old coot who runs the program (to delightfully abrasive Bruce Dern) insists that he is a part of it. If Roman can break this horse, maybe he’ll be able to break himself. Judging by the way I have snaps at his pregnant teenage daughter (“Blockers” star Gideon Adlon), I have a long way to go.