A little sincerity goes a long way.
A movie like The Mustang sounds like, if it had been in the wrong hands, could have been the schmaltziest thing you’ve ever seen: A violent, convicted prisoner named Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts), is given a work assignment at the facility to break a wild horse to sell at an auction. The movie, of course, blends two very familiar movie genres into one: Prison movies and horse movies. Horse movies are usually a pretty familiar formula, with the horse and its master having an unspoken, spiritual bond, exploring the relationship between man and animal. Prison movies explore toxic masculinity at its most unhinged and extreme.
Had The Mustang been an insincere work of a movie studio assembly line, it would have been intolerable. Instead, because the emotions that it explores are meaningful, it’s a wonderful movie about the power of redemption and the real hurt that can be caused by anger. It’s about letting go of the things that cause us pain.
Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre directs The Mustang with sensitivity, but isn’t afraid to show the ugliness of Roman’s history of violence. The movie makes no attempt to whitewash his past or let him off the hook for what he did. It wants him to learn and to grow, but it doesn’t want to blindly forgive and forget what he did. It wonders if just because someone did a monstrous thing, does that make someone a monster? And are they deserving of forgiveness or even redemption? In one of my favorite scenes, prisoners in a support group are asked to tell everyone how long it took from the mere thought of a crime to its actual event, and the men, sometimes choked with tears, explain that it took mere seconds for them to either end someone’s life or destroy their own.
The movie begins by showing the capture of the wild horses, intercut between scenes of Roman going about his daily routine at the prison. They’re both captive. They’re both angry. They both have something to prove, but unsure of what, exactly, that is. Beneath both exteriors is a violent energy ready to explode.
True to the cliches of the horse movie genre, Roman tries to break the steed, but is unable to. Roman’s arrogance is mirrored in the horse. His fear and anger over what he did is projected onto the animal. He yells at it. He screams at it. He makes no progress at all. It’s too stubborn to change its ways, until a thunderstorm puts the horses in danger and it opens its vulnerability to him. He takes it into a shelter to survive the storm for the night, and a bond is forged between the two. A certain trust is earned.
If Roman is unable to break the animal and teach it how to respond to a rider, it will be destroyed. He takes the situation seriously and sees it as a chance for redemption. I appreciated that Roman was smart enough to see this for himself. Usually movies just have a character strive for something while totally oblivious to the metaphorical implications of the plot. Instead, Roman uses the horse training as an excuse to bend the broken relationship between him and his daughter. His daughter even asks him, incredulously, if he believes training a horse actually fixes anything. He doesn’t answer. He wants to believe that, yes, it does, but he’s not sure what it means in the greater scheme of things.
The Mustang isn’t perfect. There are a few things that don’t work. There is a conflict between Roman and his cellmate that seems lifted from another movie and designed specifically to pad the runtime. It doesn’t add much, but it doesn’t take away from the movie too much either.
Mostly, The Mustang is a sweet, sentimental film with a powerful message, beautifully delivered. Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and Matthias Schoenaerts, both non-Americans, take a uniquely American film and setting, and create a beautiful neo-western out of it. It’s full of familiar tropes and cliches, most of which aren’t subverted, because the movie isn’t interested in being clever. Instead, it’s interested in telling a story straight from the heart, and it succeeds wildly. The plot is mostly predictable, but it’s expertly told. And even if where it ends up isn’t exactly a surprise, it’s reached organically and true to itself, and packs an emotional wallop all the same. The last five minutes or so of The Mustang are perfection.
It’s a shame The Mustang was released now, because it’s almost inevitable that Matthias Schoenaerts will be forgotten by the time Oscar season comes around. He should be nominated for his performance because it’s incredible.