We live in a cinematic landscape dominated by bombast, enormity, and larger-than-life characters. Every now and again, especially as we grow ever closer to the summer months – when each week sees a new explosive tentpole burst into theaters – it’s refreshing to see a film with more realistic, grounded ambitions.
Enter The Mustang, the latest film from French director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. Its setup is simple: violent convict Roman Coleman is selected to take part in a program at a Nevada State Prison wherein inmates work with and train wild mustangs, and that’s… it.
Far from holding the film back or making it feel empty, The Mustang‘s simplicity is its greatest asset. The straightforward approach taken by Clermont-Tonnerre hardly reinvents the wheel and certainly isn’t going to win any accolades for innovation, but by stripping away the artifice of most modern movies, she allows audiences to really dig into the finer points of the narrative.
Foremost among these is the question of redemption. Just by seeing any promotional material, audiences should be aware that this is the story of a man and a horse who rescue each other in some cosmic, ephemeral sense. Again, hardly revolutionary. Even so, this bare-bones premise gives way to some poignant questions. Roman is a violent, unpredictable man. He’s hurt his family in more ways than one, committed brutal crimes, and seems disinterested in taking any steps to better himself.
There are so many films about self-loathing white men with hearts of gold (and are therefore sympathetic figures) that to list them all would be to devote the next several years of my life to a neverending deep-dive into IMBD, so I’ll spare us both that pain. Suffice it to say, that stereotype is played out. I was initially worried that The Mustang would fall into the same pit (and whether or not it did is up to individual interpretation), but I found its handling of the subject to be surprisingly nuanced.
This is due in large part to the fact that I did not find Roman sympathetic at all. He was a dick to his daughter. He was a dick to his wife. He was a dick his horse at one point. He was a dick to his counselor. He was a dick to his daughter again. He was a dick to anybody who showed him the slightest bit of kindness. He was a person who was far more content to lash out at the world for his own mistakes than to own them.
This film begs the question: is there (or should there be) redemption for a man like him? Ultimately, The Mustang seems to say yes, so long as they’re willing to take actions to achieve it. At the end of the film, Roman was still a dick who had done terrible things, but the relationship he’d built with his horse reminded him of his humanity, and gave him the tools he needed to begin working on himself, to begin moving forward.
The work of Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays Roman, cannot be overstated in its importance. He lumbers into every frame, a stoic face barely containing a terrifying physical presence. Every movement is fraught with stiff tension, as if he could explode into violence at any second (and he occasionally does). In the moments where we see him let his guard down, Schoenaerts proves that he is no one trick pony (ha!). It may be considered easy to play a reticent, dour-looking man, but to play that man in one scene and be entirely believable and arresting when trying to express his emotions to their fullest in the next is exceptionally impressive. If there’s one element of The Mustang that holds the whole experience together, it’s him.
The Mustang is an experience that is far better suited to critical analysis than a review, because the form and shape of the film are understated but excellent. The score is subtle but evocative. The cinematography is never in your face but is always beautiful. The plot is about as straightforward as can be. It’s the minutia that makes The Mustang worth seeing; the intricacies that reveal themselves through the direction, writing, and the actions the characters take. If you’re in the mood for an intimate, personal film whose ambitions never outreach their grasp (before Endgame blasts into theaters next week), you could do far worse than The Mustang.