The Mustang

Review by Rich Cline | 3/5

The Mustang
dir Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
prd Ilan Goldman
scr Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Mona Fastvold, Brock Norman Brock
with Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern, Gideon Adlon, Connie Britton, Josh Stewart, Thomas Smittle, Keith Johnson, Noel Gugliemi, James McFarland, Sean Patrick Bridges, George Schroeder
release US 15.Mar.19,
Fr 19.Jun.19, UK 30.Aug.19
19/France Focus 1h36

mitchell dern britton

There's a gentle authenticity to this prison drama that brings out some surprising emotions. Although it's not the usual gritty, violent approach to the genre, even if those elements are here to some degree. Instead, French actress-turned-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre focusses on relationships, which gives an extra kick to this tale of a man and a horse who, yes, tame each other.
The US government rounds up thousands of wild mustangs each year to control overpopulation, sending some to prisons for training. Having spend most of his term in isolation, violent convict Roman (Schoenaerts) knows he's not good around people. Arriving at a new prison in rural Nevada, he's put to work cleaning out the stables. Without any knowledge of horsemanship, he makes an unexpected connection with an aggravated young horse that's kept away from the others. The wrangler Myles (Dern) notices Roman's interest and puts him to work alongside Henry (Mitchell) to break this horse.
The film opens with spectacular aerial footage of a wild herd rounded up with a helicopter. The prison is out on this open range, which allows Clermont-Tonnerre and cinematographer Ruben Impens to keep the film drenched in big-sky sunshine and a community that's far outside the boundaries of society. Of course, this film is actually about how a horse breaks a man, which isn't particularly original or surprising. And this leaves the usual prison-thriller shenanigans feeling somewhat hollow and distracting.

Schoenaerts beings his hulking presence to the screen as an impatient, angry man who slowly learns that some people (and horses) respond better to quiet compassion. This allows him to stir prickly emotions into his scenes both with his horse and his pregnant daughter Martha (Adlon), who makes regular visits. The engaging Mitchell provides some nice camaraderie, along with a key smuggling subplot that connects to Stewart as Roman's druggie cellmate. And as with almost every film he's in, there simply isn't enough of the fabulously salty Dern.

Along the way, there are some notable moments that offer some telling insights, such as Roman's acknowledgement that his crime was a spur-of-the-moment thing, not a defining part of his personality. Less effective are the scenes that depict sudden prison violence; they're shocking and horrible, so they add to the atmosphere, but they feel unrelated to the central narrative. Thankfully, the film never tries to push its sentimentality, remaining quietly moving right to the end.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 26.Aug.19

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© 2019 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall