THE STORY – Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a tightly wound convict fresh out of solitary confinement at a maximum security prison in the Nevada desert. Still wary of human contact, Roman enrolls in a tough but rewarding rehabilitation program learning to train wild mustangs. Under the tutelage of grizzled trainer Myles (Bruce Dern), he takes charge of an ornery horse in the hopes of preparing it for an annual auction. With the wild animal acting as a mirror for his own raging emotions, Roman must learn to tame not only the mustang but also the beast within.
THE CAST – Matthias Schoenaerts, Connie Britton, Bruce Dern, Jason Mitchell, Gideon Adlon & Josh Stewart
THE TEAM – Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (Director/Writer), Mona Fastvold & Brock Norman Brock (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 96 Minutes
By Will Mavity
We’ve recently been bombarded by horse films in the last two years such as “The Rider” & “War Horse.” At some point, one has to wonder what can be done to differentiate them. The “man finds serenity through an animal” trope is one that has been explored time and time again. “The Mustang” utilizes a devastating lead performance and an unusual amount of darkness and grit to allow this particular horse movie to stand out among other films of its genre.
Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenearts) has been in prison for years. Worldess and stoic, he nurses a deep internal rage that prevents him from connecting with others. That is until he enters into a prison-based rehabilitation program that pairs inmates with wild horses. Slowly, when paired with a particularly wild mustang, he builds a connection with another lifeforce that allows him to slowly feel again.
“The Mustang” boasts a lean runtime, which is something that serves as both a strength and a weakness. On one hand, there’s not a lot of fat here. The story moves along at a breezy clip. On the other hand, the relationship between Roman and the titular mustang doesn’t feel as earned or fleshed out as it could, and the ending is so subtle that it starts to feel anticlimactic. Fortunately, Schoenarts is here to compensate. His performance is arguably the best work of his career. It’s largely silent, but conveys a tremendous amount of emotion, not unlike Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea.” He lets the deep sorrow behind his eyes do the talking. We buy him as a gruff American convict, with all of his suave European charm forgotten. And when he finally does speak, he nails his big monologue, with tears and power. There is a scene midway through the film that is frankly jaw-dropping in its raw intensity. Schoenarts is the film. His work is masterful and reminds us why he is one of our most exciting working actors today.
The supporting cast is competent, with no one rising to the same level as Schoenearts. Jason Mitchell does his best to elevate a stereotypical role we’ve seen thousands of times before as the black friend who helps the tormented white protagonist find inner peace. Gideon Adlon, who impressed in last year’s “Blockers” gets to showcase some dramatic range as Roman’s pregnant daughter and Bruce Dern provides an admirable spin on the gruff mentor trope.
Ruben Impens’s cinematography is gorgeous, capturing the gloomy skies and windswept vistas of Nevada, while Jed Kurzel’s score is reliably haunting. Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s direction also shows real promise. There is a grit and energy to her work here. And it is that grit that really makes the film stand out. When we finally learn exactly why Roman is in prison, we’re deep into the plot and fully connected with him. We know the character, and it is difficult to reconcile the heinous deed recounted with the man we now know. There are moral questions which the film provides no easy answers for. This sort of story could easily have gone the upbeat Disney route. Instead, we plumb the darker reaches of ethical consideration. Do good men deserve forgiveness for truly vile deeds? Compound that with graphic prison shankings and drug use, and you have a significantly heavier spin on this familiar plot. This darkness is refreshing even if it is sometimes difficult to watch.
In short, “The Mustang” doesn’t entirely differentiate itself from other films of its kind. But the strong technical craftsmanship, and added darkness, along with a truly stunning lead performance ensure it is worth watching.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – An amazing lead performance from Matthias Schoenaerts. Strong cinematography and score and an abundance of grit make for a memorable spin on a familiar story.
THE BAD – The short runtime robs it of some thematic depth. Supporting characters aren’t entirely fleshed out beyond their typical tropes.