Have you seen the previews for Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s “The Mustang?” This is the story of an outcast prisoner (Is there any other kind in the movies?) and the wild horse he tames. Or who tames him. Predictable? Yes. But also brilliant, thanks to a subdued yet powerhouse performance by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, and a non-overly-sentimental original screenplay by de Clermont-Tonnerre, Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock.
Schoenaerts plays Roman Coleman, halfway through a sentence for a tragic case of domestic violence against his wife. As with each of his fellow prisoners, Coleman simply snapped. A few seconds of non-premeditated action has changed the trajectory of his life. As Coleman correctly states, he has trouble with other people.
Coleman is recruited into a federal program in which wild mustangs are tamed and prepared for auction by prisoners. Assigned to the wildest beast of the lot, Coleman even has trouble bonding with the horse – whom he names Marcus. Operating the mustang rehabilitation program is a crusty old horseman named Myles, played almost too well by the great character actor Bruce Dern. (And by this I mean to say that while Dern is great, as always, the role seems to fit him so well that we don’t get the sense he was required to “stretch” a lot to encompass the arc of the character.) Myles is tough on Coleman, but Coleman turns out to be a fairly quick study, only faltering when his razor-thin threshold for anger is reached.
Gideon Adlon plays Coleman’s daughter Martha, pregnant with her first child, who initially visits her father to request his signature on a legal document. The two obviously don’t get along, although Coleman is mildly interested in at least re-opening a dialogue with her. Their visits become increasingly heart-wrenching, and this side-story becomes almost as important and hard-hitting as that of the horse. Unnecessary is a side-story about an inter-prison drug deal gone bad, which involves Coleman’s bunkmate. The time devoted to this plotline should have been used to further our understanding of the skill of horse taming.
The blending of the horse-taming story with the father-daughter thread is handled masterfully by de Clermont-Tonnerre and her writing staff. Following a particularly upsetting meeting with Martha, Coleman takes out his anger on the horse – and is subsequently assigned to solitary confinement. In the final act, Coleman’s frustration with re-gaining Marcus’ respect is taken out on… no one. He is the only person present. As his temper ignites, he knows he can’t anger the horse. Schoenaerts’ internalization of his frustration is a masterful piece of acting.
On the one hand, we feel as though we know the story of “The Mustang” before it even begins. On the other, this is one jewel of a film – easily one of this year’s best so far. Most likely a burgeoning hit due to the fact that Robert Redford served as executive producer, de Clermont-Tonnarre introduces us to a world we perhaps thought we knew, but really don’t. Most of us have never tamed a horse. Much as with last year’s “The Rider,” “The Mustang” shows us the art of doing just that. But there’s more of a story here.
Behind two of the best performances of the young motion picture year (those of Schoenaerts and Adlon), “The Mustang” is an explosive, sometimes violent, depiction of a life so foreign to us the action may as well take place on the moon. We learn from this film. We cry with its protagonist. And we leave the theatre with the sense that we’ve just witnessed a near-masterpiece. “The Mustang” is not perfect, but it establishes de Clermont-Tonnarre as a strong director – and Matthias Schoenaerts as one of our most underutilized talents. This one’s a winner.