In The Mustang, French director Clermont-Tonnerre turns her artful gaze to the American West in this modern-day story of a hardened convict who finds a small measure of redemption when he takes on the training of a wild horse. The movie has a nice premise based on a real prison project where inmates are used to train wild mustangs that have been captured. I wasn’t aware this existed, but it does and you can see how it could lead to a measure of emotional healing for the inmates working with the animals. But lest you think this sounds saccharine or cheesy, I should tell you that it isn’t. There’s a corny Disney version of this story, but Clermont-Tonnerre is interested in the difficulties of redemption and the film doesn’t have the story book ending you kind of expect, though it is a movie about hope in bad situations. The movie is well directed; Clermont-Tonnerre is a devotee of Paris, Texas, apparently and you can sure tell in the way she photographs the bleak landscapes of Nevada. Matthias Schoenaerts, an actor that is, I think, still very underrated, gives a magnificent performance as Roman, a man who purposely inflicts violence on other inmates so that he can be thrown into solitary; he doesn’t like being around people, he tells a counselor at the beginning of the movie. He’s a man burning with deep rage and a loathing for both himself and everyone around him. But when he’s thrown into this program he sees two things in the violent mustang he’s given to train: himself and a worthy opponent. I loved the way the movie highlighted that the tools he’s assembled over the years in order to survive in prison are totally at odds with the tools required to bond with an animal. Anger, intimidation, violence . . . none of these things work when you’re trying to get a horse to trust you. Schoenaerts does a wonderful job at really rounding Roman out as a full-blooded character and the script is wise enough to make his redemption realistic even as it is meaningful. He doesn’t magically become a good person or even a less scary person in some ways, but trying to understand an animal and make it understand him teaches about, above everything else, empathy. He has to understand what his animal is thinking and feeling and over his years in prison he’s lost the ability to really empathize even with other people until this moment. So, the movie doesn’t in any way try to say that his journey of emotional redemption doesn’t matter; it’s a big deal for Roman, but he still has a long way to go at the end of the film and I like that the movie is able to split the difference on this. The supporting cast is quite good. Gideon Adlon is exceptional as Roman’s estranged daughter. Schoenaerts’ scenes with her are some of his finest work here. Thomas Smittle, a non-professional ex-con who actually worked with wild horses in programs like the one portrayed here, is really, really good as an inmate. He brings the weight of real life to the performance and his naturalistic performance is compelling. Bruce Dern is not given a whole lot to do as the boss of the training program, but he’s always fun. Connie Britton (haven’t seen her in A WHILE) is really good as a counselor at the prison. All in all, I found this to be a very moving film. There are some plot issues certainly; a section of the film that deals with an inmate forcing Roman to use his access to the horses to steal some veterinary drugs is interesting in terms of the mechanics the inmates use in order to smuggle the drugs around the prison, but it has a really weird resolution. But these are pretty minor ultimately. At its heart, this movie manages the neat trick of creating a truly moving story of redemption without ever losing sight of the hardships and setbacks that even the redeemed will struggle with their entire lives. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – a powerful lead performance and a sharp, realistic script elevate this story of animal-based redemption above the clichés to create a truly moving film. 3 ½ stars