By Anna Husted EBS FILM CRITIC
“The Mustang” is a humble coming-of-age story that saw a limited theatrical release earlier this year after being picked up by Focus Features at the Sundance Film Festival. Its formula and simple premise are straightforward and serve up nothing really new on the screen, but that simplicity along with the use of “narrow” cinematography style and minimal dialogue deliver the thoughtful moments of beauty and intrigue with some punch.
The film opens with a paragraph of text informing us of the existence of the wild horse training program at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center—due to the over-populated wild horses in Nevada, the government corrals thousands of horses each year to be euthanized or trained to be later sold at auction.
At the center of “The Mustang” is up-and-coming actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who brings a strong and stoic subtlety to the role of Roman Coleman, an inmate at a remote American prison. The film opens with Roman speaking with an anger-management counselor (Connie Britton), who is trying her best to get Roman to cooperate so he can be placed back in general population after a confrontation with a fellow prisoner. The only thing he admits to is that he’s bad with people; this comment prompts her to secure him a job shoveling horse manure as part of the prison’s wild horse training program.
On the first day on his work assignment, a particularly spirited horse catches Roman’s attention. He names it Marcus. The program lead, Myles (a fantastically grumpy Bruce Dern), recognizes the anger Marcus and Roman share, and from there out Myles and Roman are given the most screen time from writer/director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. And aside from one gruesome moment with a fellow horse trainer, they are the only two afforded close-up shots in the entire film, providing acute intimacy.
When Roman first gets in the corral with Marcus he is incredibly green, subsequently making some near-fatal mistakes with Marcus, beating him out of frustration. But once Marcus gets Roman off his feet, however, the two are the only characters in the frame with a brilliant sky behind them—this well-balanced shot between protagonists and the sky by cinematographer Ruben Impens (who shot “The Broken Circle Breakdown” with the same American-plains simplicity) says all we need to know about the melding of their spirits, and Clermont-Tonnerre holds this moment long enough for us to really feel the palpable anger they both have.
“The Mustang” has a bit of 2017’s “The Rider” and “Lean on Pete” at its core, which means it also is a must-see tearjerker. Instead of a youthful coming-of-age story like the other two fantastic horse films, it’s about an adult finding his identity as a man. Owen Gleiberman said it best in his glowing review of “The Mustang”: “The movie is less about a convict who becomes a horse whisperer than about a horse who becomes a convict whisperer.”
I can’t recommend “The Mustang” enough. It is a psalm of grace and mercy, which the director bestows on Roman and Marcus throughout the film and in its final sententious shot. No spoiler for you, though.
“The Mustang” is available for rental from the Big Sky Community Library, Google Play and Amazon.
Anna Husted has a master’s in film studies from New York University. In Big Sky she can be found hiking a mountain or at the movies at Lone Peak Cinema. When not gazing at the silver screen or watching her new favorite TV show, she’s reading, fishing or roughhousing with her cat, Indiana Jones.