As far as cinematic symbols from the animal kingdom go, horses have always brought with them a feeling of romanticism for the strength, beauty and sense of freedom they exemplify on the big screen. It’s particularly true when the script focuses on the bond being created between man and mammal — from 1979’s The Black Stallion to 2003’s Seabiscuit to 2011’s War Horse. Two of last year’s most emotionally satisfying films — The Rider and Lean on Pete — proved that dramas featuring a lead steed and its equestrian can still be effective if there is a genuine interspecies friendship at its core.
With The Mustang, French actress Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (Comedy of Innocence) makes her directorial debut from a screenplay she penned alongside co-writers Mona Fastvold (The Childhood of a Leader) and Brock Norman Brock (Bronson). The film tells the story of Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a hardened and violent criminal who has spent the last 12 years in a Nevada prison — much of that time in solitary confinement. When the state decides he can reenter the general population, he is set up with a job doing “outdoor maintenance” after he informs the prison psychologist (Connie Britton) that he’s “not good with people.”
“Outdoor maintenance” turns out to mean a job shoveling shit left behind by the horses in a special program at the prison where inmates are taught how to tame wild mustangs to be sold at auction. Roman is immediately intrigued by the power of the animals. As tough and fearless as he presents himself to be, Roman flinches every time one of the horses kicks the steel wall of an enclosure. When he’s given the chance to train his own mustang by the program’s wise, old mentor Myles (Bruce Dern), a clichéd character even two-time Oscar nominee Dern can’t shape into anything very distinctive, Roman finds himself face to long face with a feral animal that shares some of his personality traits — introverted, hot-blooded and stubborn.
Although obvious, the parallels between Roman and his horse are the most interesting element to explore in The Mustang, even though the connection between the duo isn’t fleshed out in a meaningful way. In fact, none of Roman’s relationships throughout the film make much of an impact, including the one with his estranged daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon) who visits him on occasion but doesn’t want to hear about his failures as a father.
Schoenaerts, however, elevates the material with an intrinsic performance and cinematographer Ruben Impens (Beautiful Boy) transforms the wide-open spaces into works of art, especially when the horses are part of the boundless landscapes. As a story of personal healing and redemption, The Mustang is a predictable ride, but one that will still stir the soul.
The Mustang opens exclusively at the Santikos Bijou March 28.