Directed By Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Starring – Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern
The Plot – Roman (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 (Dern) and helped by an outgoing fellow inmate and trick rider (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.
Rated R for adult language, some violence and drug content
– A wide range of emotional response. Very few films, especially today, have the kind of depth in screenplay that connects with the audience on such a personal level. To this degree, “The Mustang” brought forth, laughter, sadness, anger, and an overall sense of inspiration in me, for what I call the modern day rendering of the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” ending. If films can invest you in a way that makes you feel one of these emotions, then it’s done a good job at connecting to its audience, but when you have a film touch you in a way that allows your own registry to ride hand-in-hand with those of the character’s, then you have something that transcends the screen, and gives us a sense of the vital importance of connection, even beyond that of a human level.
– The Roman/horse dynamic. When you compare these two lost souls coming together, you discover that they have a lot more in common than meets the eye. Both of them are captured and imprisoned in ways that take them away from familiarity. Both are well reserved in their demeanor’s, requiring the bond of the other to open up and invest in something important to feel free again. Likewise, they both come together during a time when the lives surrounding them have crumbled, leaving them leaning on the dependency of the other to get by, and redeem the level of trust that they are both capable of. I also found it interesting how Roman’s engagement with the horse is reflected upon the brief visitation interaction’s that he shares with his daughter. The first one is very well reserved and full of anger, but by the third one he seeks forgiveness and redemption for the missteps taken in his handling of the situation. It’s not accidental that Laure depicts these two living, breathing creatures so closely in movements, and it all leads to the final shots of the film, where I interpret that these two become one almost metaphorically, bringing forth a back-handed triumph in the closing moments that makes sense the more you think about it.
– Heavy-hitting turns. This is easily Schoenaerts single best performance to date, transforming himself physically and personally to becoming this shell of a convict who remains to himself. Matthias’ ability to say so little throughout the movie, yet speak so loudly in facial reactions is something that establishes a line of immersive acting that he hasn’t been saddled with until now, and despite this character being a bit of a terrible person, you engage in him because his eyes are the windows of this tortured soul that is living with a fine combination of grief and regret. It builds to a third act transformation that gives way to him being able to open up the closer he gets to his trusty four-legged companion. In addition to him, it’s always charming to see Bruce Dern’s dry delivery of wit that commands respect if only for its stern enveloping. Young phenom Gideon Adlon is also a revelation, making the most of a few scenes with unabashed anger in streaming tears, that really forces you to turn against our central protagonist. I saw Adlon in last year’s so-so raunchy comedy “Blockers”, but her turn here shows that there’s a lot of fire burning in this furnace, and with any luck in casting, we will see her coals burning for a long time to come.
– Precise editing. The tight cuts are asked to perform a bit more magic in this film, as the movements of the horses are used to manipulate audiences into thinking that we are seeing them naturally attack. This is done with a fine amount of close angles and fluid continuity in pasting different takes together, to make a presentation that puts us front-and-center with Roman, in the heat of the action. Sequences like these almost give us no time to zero in and focus on even the slightest detection of weakness, but we never find it, and it’s all a testament to Clermont-Tonnerre’s hand of magic, where she only allows you to see what you want to see. For her first feature length film, her consistency never shatters, and it makes me want to see what else she can do on a bigger scale production.
– Seeping-in musical score. The somber ingredients dispersed in the film echo such a cold sadness in the presentation of the movie, that it almost feels somewhat reflective of Roman’s interior compass. What’s impressive is patient level of volume used in post production to never overstep its boundaries on the art of the scene itself, and only becoming audibly obvious during scenes of transition, where the echo of hopelessness begins to evaporate. The man behind the callous tones is Jed Kurzel, the same man who scored “The Babadook”, one of my favorite horror films of the decade, and it was his influence that triggered much of the anxiety-ridden nightmare fuel that film had to offer. For “The Mustang”, he’s able to show a much more intimate side than horror can grant, and the confidence in his music to never strike louder than anything in the scene itself, better allows the elements of drama to simmer with the heat in orchestral engagements that he sprinkles each scene with.
– Ruben Impens. One of my favorite cinematographer’s going today is back, and it’s no surprise that his boldly beautiful frames and color filters are the very best thing that this film has to offer. The wide angles that depict the mountainside and endless deserts convey a sense of freedom being so close, yet so far away for Roman. Likewise, the sunbaked effects that reflect in the camera itself, establishes a visual metaphor for his golden opportunity that he simply can’t let slip away. These things prove that a film doesn’t need a blockbuster budget to present these visually breathtaking enchantments, and these elements better channel the mental location of these characters, in a place that feels so isolated from everyone and everything they love.
– Educative and informative. A fine line of poignancy and human commentary persists in the idea of these horses being taken from their habitat, and sold for devilish greed, and the film never shies away from this inescapable feeling of victimizing that it is truly responsible for taking. Beyond this, I appreciate that the film not only gives us the facts with this disgusting poaching, but it also takes the time to teach us the steps in gaining a horse’s trust that other films may overlook. In this regard, we are able to slip into Roman’s shoes that much easier because we are learning things on the same speed that he is, and can’t escape that feeling of uncertainty and fear that smother the initial confrontations. This film not only told me how similar the breeds of human and horse are truly are, it showed it to me, and it proves that even in a 91 minute film, it’s important for audiences to understand how unpredictable their movements truly can be if you make even one wrong move.
– True story. I appreciate that the movie never got lost in the heat of the “Based on a true story” gimmick, and instead reserved itself for the beginning and end of the movie to relay its information. The end even treats us to some real life pictures of the people that the movie is based on, but doesn’t lose itself to fully telling their stories. This may sound a bit insulting to the real life figures, but when you’re not discussing a historical event of tragedy, the people can become shaped in whatever way the script requires them to be, to further enhance the element of surprise, which this movie has a couple of.
– Unnecessary prison subplot. This angle, which distracts from the intimacy of these stirring subplots, feels every bit as tacked-on as it does compromising to the film’s pacing. This angle involving drug trading and race war’s is something that didn’t feel synonymous with something in this particular prison film, and if it was removed completely, the film would trim ten minutes and lose absolutely nothing. It doesn’t hinder the progress of my score as a whole, but these brief hiccups were the only times when “The Mustang” felt like it was trying to be something and cater to a particular subgenre that it absolutely isn’t, and this element of the script simply doesn’t mesh well with its counterparts.
– Missed opportunities. Even if we do find out the “what” and the “how” of Roman’s incarceration, the “why” seems to be a much more important aspect that the movie never fully exploits for compelling drama. There’s a scene of remorse from Roman, where he speaks to his daughter about one faithful night, but the actions of an angry man come and go with so little understanding of the situation, that it almost feels secondary to the environment surrounding it. The father and daughter do confront one another, but for it being the closing shot between them, the resolution left a little more to be desired, and if it wasn’t for an additional closing narration (Which also feels tacked-on), this subplot would leave many audiences missing the finer points of easily the most engaging material that the movie has to offer.
My Grade: 8/10 or B+