The Mustang

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The trailers for The Mustang made me roll my eyes. So did the tagline (Untamed souls. Kindred spirits). I wondered if it would be another movie showing some metaphor — the wild beast taming the wild beast by just showing love and compassion. I saw a few cliches and…after so many great horse movies last year (Lean on Pete, The Rider, Thoroughbreds), I wasn’t sure I was ready for another one. Boy was I wrong. This movie was such a handsomely put together production, and just as The Rider…made by a female director doing her second movie…this is the first feature made by female director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (based on her short film Rabbit), and it will surely be on my Top 10 of the year. It’s fantastic.

Robert Redford (the man behind The Horse Whisperer), and his Sundance Institute, helped get this movie made.

It’s got two performances that better be remembered at Oscar time — Bruce Dern for supporting actor, and Matthias Schoenaerts for leading actor. It’s about time we start talking about this Belgian actor as one of the best working today. He’s been impressing me since I first saw him in Bullhead eight years ago.

Schoenaerts plays Roman Coleman (is that a name or what?). He’s a convicted felon that’s a bit of a loner. As we hear from an early scene with a prison psychologist (a criminally underused Connie Britton), he doesn’t do well with other people. We get the feeling there’s this rage right underneath the surface, and hey…this is a prison film. Rest assured, you’ll see that rage. That’s about all I will give away. Every critic I’ve checked so far, have given away information about the attractive, pregnant woman (Gideon Adlon of Blockers’) that comes to visit and what she wants from him. And that’s a shame. It’s so much more interesting to discover her motivations as the film unfolds.

Roman gets a work detail shovelling horse manure, but he can’t take his eyes off a wild horse that’s locked away and kicking madly on the walls. A few of the other prisoners are working to tame wild horses, in a program we learn in the beginning, really happens. They tame them, auction them, and it raises money. This is all under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management.

When the crusty old Myles (Bruce Dern) sees Roman’s interested, he gives the guy a shot training the angry steed. Myles often plays it like an angry football coach, other times, like a folksy storyteller who talks to the prisoners by a campfire.

It was a pleasant surprise to see that the convict that does the best with the horses, is played by Jason Mitchell, who was so great as Eazy E in Straight Outta Compton. It’s the type of role a big budget film would’ve given to Kevin Hart.

It was also a pleasant surprise that Laure didn’t have these characters becoming best friends. This is prison, where folks often take sides based on race. And it’s a lot more interesting to see Roman admiring the work Henry (Jason Mitchell) does from afar.

This story was co-written by the director, Mona Fastvold, and Brock Normal. They deserve a lot of credit. It’s unfortunate for them that this will be compared to last year’s The Rider (I think they’re perfect companion pieces). I actually thought more of An Officer and a Gentleman (two scenes in particular, which I can’t give away).

The script perfectly blends the predictable elements, with moments we don’t see coming. My wife and I were talking about how much we loved a scene in which Roman is talking to his guest in the visiting room, and he’s so proud of the work he’s doing with the horses. This woman doesn’t seem to give a crap, nor should she. Why should she be happy, just because he seems to have finally found something worthwhile to occupy his time. It sort of reminded me of the relationship in The Wrestler. Mickey Rourke seems to think that a few visits with his daughter will atone for all his past sins, and his kid is partly happy, and partly waiting for him to screw up again.

The script has a rather restrained approach to what is going on with various characters, and that works beautifully.

There were also certain shots in this that were just beautiful. A few times, it’s when inmate and horse are face to face. In one of those shots, you can see Roman in the horse’s eye.

There’s also a shot that ends the movie, that’s one of the most beautiful, and saddest scenes I’ve seen in my life. It’s just brilliant.

Cinematographer Ruben Impens has some stunning shots of the Nevada landscape and mountain vistas. Other times, we see the chaos and confusion of a coming storm and how to protect the horses.

I was surprised as hell to hear a song by Sky Saxon and the Seeds (Can’t Seem to Make You Mine). If they’re going to go with a ‘60s song, how do you not go with the Stones “Wild Horses”?

Oh, and there’s a great scene where a classical piece of music was played while the prisoners rode. Another outstanding shot in a movie filled with them.

I’m stunned that a first time filmmaker (who’s a former actress) could avoid so many things that would’ve sunk a story like this (for example, the montage scene with the prisoner falling down in mud or poo). Instead, we see him trying, and not usually getting far. It slowly made the audience yearn for this connection to finally be made. And when the horse and trainer finally do connect, it’s a magical moment.

You don’t have to be a horse lover to enjoy this movie. It’s going to be on many critics’ lists of the best films of 2019. It’ll certainly be on mine.

4 stars out of 5.


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