“The Mustang” Is More Than Just Another Hardened-Convict-and-His-Horse Movie


APRIL 9, 2019

Let’s lower expectations here.  “The Mustang” is a very very good movie, but it’s a very simple movie.  Directed by French actress Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, “The Mustang” is a redemption story, one involving a violent criminal named Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) who gets a second chance at life while serving his time at a Nevada penitentiary.

In Nevada, where there is an overrun of feral horses, the state has initiated a program by which those horses are rounded up and brought to the penitentiary where selected prisoners are tasked with breaking them.  (The connection between the horses being broken by prisoners who need to be broken themselves will go no further than this sentence.)

Because of his hair-trigger temper, Roman has been serving his time in solitary confinement — “I’m not good with people,” he tells a prison counselor (Connie Britton) — yet he now faces being reintegrated back into the prison population and is given the job of disposing of manure near the prison’s horse program.  Once there, he bonds with one mustang, a bond that is noticed by the program’s primary trainer Myles (Bruce Dern), who tells him that the horse that has caught his eye is the most unbreakable in the herd.  (Naturally.)

Roman is accepted into the program and has five weeks to get this mustang into shape to be auctioned off.  With enormous help by horse trainer Henry (Jason Mitchell, as good here as he was in “Mudbound” and “Straight Outta Compton”), Roman is able to get his horse, whom he has named Marcus, into some kind of credible shape for the auction.

At the same time, Roman has been having some serious family problems with his estranged daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon, very good) who comes to visit, but as much as he tries (or thinks he does), father and daughter cannot seem to get on the same page, and that failure weighs heavy on him as he leads Marcus into the auction.

It’s notable that there have been several films about men and horses over the last year, and most of them, like “The Mustang,” have been directed by women.  Clermont-Tonnerre, like Chloé Zhao of 2018’s “The Rider,” is particularly good in directing actors.  Mitchell, Britton and Adlon are all terrific, but particularly good is Bruce Dern, who has now fallen into a “grumpy grandpa” phase of his career, but snaps out of it here as the tough-as-nails horse training boss.  He really makes you see what a badass his Myles was in his earlier life, which is crucial for the believability here.

Best in show, however, is Schoenaerts, who is usually cast as the sex object in a film (such as in Luca Guadagnino’s 2015 hothouse “A Bigger Splash”), but here he plays it straight as a man who knows his faults but just wants to return to society and reconcile with his daughter, and his mustang Marcus may just be the vehicle to help him to do just that.

Sometimes it’s not the complexity of the story that matters but just how it’s done.  Here Clermont-Tonnerre has lifted the material skyward, and the result is what could have been a conventional film has been raised up to something special.