The Mustang is a simple, but powerful film about hope and redemption. In a cinema landscape cluttered with big budget CGI spectacles, a troubled man's connection with an untamed horse is a hidden gem. Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts is unrecognizable as a hardened prisoner. He delivers a quiet performance with moments of tense explosiveness. The Mustang is the feature length debut from French actress and screenwriter Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. Kudos to this European tandem for telling a uniquely American story.
The Mustang begins with the U.S. government corralling a herd of wild horses. They are packed unto trucks and shipped to a Nevada prison. A program places the unbroken horses under the supervised care of felons. They have twelve weeks to train the animals for sale at auction. The lucky ones survive and are put to work. The rebellious scragglers are euthanized.
Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Roman Coleman, a dangerous convict simmering with rage . He's just been transferred to the prison after a long stretch in solitary confinement. Coleman is giving a chance to rehabilitate himself by cleaning up horse manure. The program chief (Bruce Dern) notices a connection between Coleman and a particularly rambunctious mustang. His pairing of the two leads to life changing realizations for man and beast. Coleman must overcome his anger and shame to reconnect with his young, pregnant daughter (Gideon Adlon).
Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre draws a parallel between the mustang and prisoner. Both were uncontrolled creatures, locked away in solitude, forced to adhere to structure. Obviously the horse is a wild animal that deserves to be free. Coleman senses its anger and fear. He must earn its trust. The scenes with the horse marks a vivid contrast with the daily ugliness of prison life. As Coleman confronts the magnitude of his crime, he also begins to bond with another prisoner (Jason Mitchell) in the program. These relationships are counter to the racially segregated prison gangs. It's a tightrope walk that eventually leads to trouble.
Matthias Schoenaerts has sparse dialogue in The Mustang. He barely speaks in the first act. His performance is almost entirely physical, especially in stature and with a fierce countenance. Coleman exudes an immensely threatening demeanor. This stone veneer softens as he interacts with the horse. When Coleman starts to open up, his words have significant weight. Schoenaerts, who's best known stateside for Red Sparrow and The Danish Girl, holds an acting clinic. Audiences unfamiliar with his work will be surprised he's not American.
The Mustang is beautifully shot. From the sweeping vistas of horses running free, to the cramped hellhole of prison confinement, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre makes great use of her settings. She also establishes the bonds between the prisoners and horses with excellent visual cues. Coleman peers through his sliver of a window to see the horses in their corral. They represent freedom, if only in spirit from their stark surroundings. There's a poetic outlook to her filmmaking style.
The Mustang is an introspective film that requires patience. This is not a ten pages and a bang story. The film is a testament to the grace and elegance of the wild horses. What better way to discover humanity, than through a connection with a majestic animal. The Mustang is distributed by Focus Features, and will expand into wider release this Friday.