By CYNTHIA BIDDLECOMB
“The Mustang” pairs a violent prison inmate with a raging mustang caught in the wild. The director of this film subtly juxtaposes the spirit of the horse against that of the man, so we are moved by the parallels. Few could tame (or “break”) this horse, much less communicate with it in a meaningful way. Both have known wild times as well as fear. Both are captives.
This is the first feature length film by French director Laure de Clermont-Tonnere. Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts opens an internal world at center stage, but what dialogue he has is in English. Like much of contemporary European cinema, The Mustang has a minimalist feeling to it: the emotional weight of the story is carried by Schoenaerts’ visage rather than by music or extended scenes of either tenderness towards animals or violence between humans.
The film opens with the printed explanation that more than 100,000 wild horses, or Mustangs, roam the country, but the land can no longer support all of them. Annually some are rounded up. Most are euthanized, but a handful are taken to prisons in some Western states that have special programs to rehabilitate prisoners and break the horses; the goal is to auction off the horses. One of the actors breaking horses in this film, Thomas Smittle, was actually in the program while in prison and has devoted his life since then to the preservation of wild horses.
The star of this film, besides the Mustang, is Matthias Schoenaerts (who played Jennifer Lawrence’s uncle and handler in The Sparrow). He gives us Roman Coleman, who has been in prison for 12 years. More than midway through the film, we learn why Roman’s incarcerated when he opens up to his visiting daughter. Roman is a tough nut to crack. He’s new to this facility in Nevada and has spent a lot of time in solitary. “I’m not good with people,” he explains. By happenstance, the program director sees something in him and Roman eventually gets into the program, assigned to the most difficult of the Mustangs.
The veteran actor here is Bruce Dern, playing Myles, the director of the wild horse program at Roman’s prison. He is appropriately gruff and impressively expert about wild horses and how to approach them. He has a keen eye for what is going on in the men, as well.
The beauty of wild horses and the captivity of the angry and frustrated men who tame them, leaves the viewer with a melancholy feeling. Near perfect lighting and cinematography make the film special. The Mustang is “Rated R for language, some violence and drug content.” Younger audience members may find it moves too slow. Older moviegoers need not fear being dragged into a film about prison life and intrigue. There is a touch of that to set the stage, but the real story here is between Roman and the horse he names Marquis. In this reviewer’s opinion, this film is worthy of your time.