THE MUSTANG, from Focus Features, tells the story of near-sociopath Roman (the remarkable Matthias Schoenaerts) serving time for a violent crime in a rural Nevada prison facility and the wild horse who may save him. And vice-versa.
A man of few words but simmering anger, Roman enters an “outdoor maintenance” program to train wild mustangs that roam the plains. Both man and animal sorely need social rehabilitation but rebel. Roman’s assignment unfolds in a stark, sprawling treeless environment enlivened by the captured horses and humanized by the facility’s no-nonsense veteran trainer (Bruce Dern in yet another jaw-dropping perf.) and an affable fellow inmate and experienced trainer (Jason Mitchell), both effective animal and human communicators. Roman meets-nasty with the unbreakable horse assigned him but together these lost souls embark on a bumpy rehabilitation journey. Roman’s hurdles include his pregnant 16-year-old daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon) making legal demands during her prison visits, his prison psychologist (the forever dependable Connie Britton) who struggles with her stubbornly enraged mute patient, and, most troubling for Roman, his cellmate Dan (menacing Josh Stewart) luring him into a drug trafficking scheme. Twists, action scenes and lessons of redemption and trust add momentum and depth to a largely slow drip narrative.
Animal and horse lovers especially will delight in their leading role here and all viewers will, as the filmmaker clearly intended, understand the need to protect this magnificent wild horse population and the human rewards of doing so.
Performances all strong, especially the trifecta of Dern, Britton and especially the Belgian Schoenaerts, fluent in so many languages and the different screen personalities he’s aced, notably in his surprise Oscar-nominated breakthrough Bullhead, where he first embodied the rugged but sensitive hero.
Sundance-supported French filmmaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, who also co-wrote, impresses with a feature directorial debut that displays an understanding of film as both craft and poetry. She also displays a reverence and hope for flawed humanity and a deep love of horses. And knows importance of doing the research!
A second cousin to Sony Pictures Classics’ surprise hit The Rider, with which it shares an attentive, minimalist approach, remote far west open spaces as metaphor for existential dilemma, and a troubled working class man and the vital bond with a horse.
The film’s less than giddy-up pacing, especially when just out of the gate, may challenge some impatient viewers who need more narrative oomph in their films.