×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Mustang’

Matthias Schoenaerts is terrific in Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre's quietly moving debut feature about a prisoner who bonds with a wild horse.

Director:
Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
With:
Matthias Schoenaerts, Gideon Adlon, Bruce Dern, Connie Britton, Jason Mitchell, Josh Stewart.
Release Date:
Mar 15, 2019

Official Site: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5952594/

Matthias Schoenaerts has always been a bit of a conundrum: a brilliant actor in the body of a supermodel bruiser. Maybe that’s why, even though he’s from Belgium, he has long been drawn to a certain kind of rough-and-tumble American art thriller — like “The Drop,” or the criminally overlooked “Blood Ties” (where he was mesmerizing as an outer-borough lowlife), or last year’s “Red Sparrow,” in which he played a Russian intelligence officer with a lurid gleam that made him seem like the cutthroat son of Vladimir Putin.

The Mustang,” set in a remote prison compound nestled in the Nevada desert, is by comparison a much more lyrical and restrained movie. It’s about the bond between a hardened prisoner and a wild horse, and it’s been made, by the first-time director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, in a style of great-plains minimalism that feels, at times, like it’s trying to be a cousin to “The Rider.” “The Mustang” isn’t as good, but it’s a touching and original piece of bare-bones sentimental humanism, and Schoenaerts is terrific in it.

He plays a man named Roman Coleman, with a shaved head and a biker goatee and a stoic glare, who’s behind bars for reasons that “The Mustang” holds back on revealing. For a while, we figure that he’s a stone-cold sociopath. But it’s part of the film’s tricky balancing act that Schoenaerts comes on like some spiritually lobotomized death-row version of Dwayne Johnson and still cues us, at every turn, to look for the soul within.

An opening title informs us that there are 100,000 wild mustangs still roaming the U.S., but that their numbers are dwindling as land becomes privatized and the animals are captured and even euthanized. That could be a movie right there, though it isn’t this one. “The Mustang” is about the wild horses that are caught and sold for auction after being put through a program in which they’re trained by prisoners. (The program really exists; we see stills from it at the end.)

Roman, seated opposite a smug anger-management therapist (Connie Britton), is about to re-enter the general prison population of the Northern Nevada Correction Center after having spent a lengthy stretch in solitary. He has no interest in joining the incarcerated horde (“I’m not good with people,” he says, in what seems to be the movie’s biggest understatement), and he shows no signs of connecting after he gets assigned to shovel out the prison’s makeshift stockade.

But then Myles (Bruce Dern), the gnarly old coot in charge of the program, orders Roman to go in and break one of the horses. Roman has no luck at it, and that’s because this is a standoff between not one but two imperious beasts. At one point, he actually slugs the horse. But it’s only after a fit of screaming and arm-waving, with Roman doing anything and everything he can to establish a boundary, that de Clermont-Tonnerre comes up with an exquisite shot that’s as startling as it is moving: a dramatic low angle, with Roman sitting there, defeated, next to a slice of empty sky, the space suddenly filled by the horse’s head, which swoops down for a nuzzle. And Roman, ever so mildly, nuzzles back. From that moment the film has us in the saddle.

“The Mustang” isn’t a wordless movie, yet there’s so little in the way of substantial dialogue that the entire script feels like it might be 12 pages long. At times, that’s frustrating; “The Rider,” for all its luminous poetic Western stillness, had plenty of meaty exchanges. Yet there’s a design to the movie’s quietude. “The Mustang” wants to immerse us in the silence of that rarefied space where man and animal connect. The movie is less about a convict who becomes a horse whisperer than about a horse who becomes a convict whisperer.

Roman does have a strand of outside life: a daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon), who is pregnant and comes to visit him, but only so that he’ll sign a release allowing her to sell the house her grandmother left them. Her bitterness at Roman heightens the film’s central question: Why is Roman in prison? When we learn the answer, it seals his aura of violence and, at the same time, undercuts it. It leaves room for a shard of hope. And it’s Roman’s training and riding of that horse, who he names Marcus, that cracks hope open into possibility. “The Mustang” has an arc you can trace, but you will not, I promise you, predict the final shot, and it’s a beauty — a tearjerker as delicate as they come.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Mustang'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), January 31, 2019. Running time: 96 MIN.

Production: A Focus Features release of a Canal, Cine, Légende, Nexus Factory production. Producer: Ilan Goldman. Executive producers: Robert Redford, Molly Hallam.

Crew: Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. Screenplay: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Mona Fastvold, Brock Norman Brock. Camera (color, widescreen): Ruben Impens. Editor: Géraldine Mangenot. Music: Jed Kurzel.

With: Matthias Schoenaerts, Gideon Adlon, Bruce Dern, Connie Britton, Jason Mitchell, Josh Stewart.

More Film

  • Isabela Moner Dora the Explorer

    Film News Roundup: Isabela Merced Boards Jason Momoa's 'Sweet Girl' for Netflix

    In today’s film news roundup, Isabela Merced get cast opposite Jason Momoa, “Starbright” gets financing and AFM announces its speakers. CASTING Isabela Merced, formerly Isabela Moner, has come on board to portray the daughter of Jason Momoa in his upcoming revenge thriller “Sweet Girl” for Netflix. Momoa will play a devastated man who vows to [...]

  • Walt Disney HQ LA

    Disney Seeks to Throw Out Gender Pay Gap Lawsuit

    The Walt Disney Co. is seeking to throw out a lawsuit alleging that women employees are paid less than men, arguing that the suit is too sprawling and unwieldy to handle as a class action. Andrus Anderson LLP filed the suit in April, alleging that Disney’s hiring and pay practices have a discriminatory effect on [...]

  • Ford v Ferrari

    Christian Bale, Matt Damon to Campaign in Lead Actor Category for 'Ford v Ferrari'

    Christian Bale and Matt Damon will both campaign in the lead actor category for awards for their work in Fox’s upcoming “Ford v Ferrari,” Variety has learned. “Ford v Ferrari” follows an eccentric, determined team of American engineers and designers, led by automotive visionary Carroll Shelby (Damon) and his British driver, Ken Miles (Bale), who [...]

  • Tezuka's Barbara film

    Tokyo Film Festival: Makoto Tezuka Probes Past and Present in 'Barbara'

    The son of the late Osamu Tezuka, who is known as the “the god of manga” in Japan for his innovative and enduringly popular comics, Makoto Tezuka (also known as Macoto Tezka) long ago escaped his father’s looming shadow, carving out a career as a film and animation director. At the same time, he has [...]

  • Cuba Gooding Jr

    Cuba Gooding Jr. Sued for Allegedly Pinching Nightclub Server

    A Tao nightclub server who alleges that Cuba Gooding Jr., pinched her rear-end last year has sued the Oscar-winning actor for sexual battery. Natasha Ashworth had previously come forward to New York law enforcement, though her name had not been released publicly. Gooding was indicted last week on four misdemeanor counts, including two counts stemming [...]

  • Taika Waititi Natalie Portman SDCC 2019

    Natalie Portman Weighs in on 'Thor: Love and Thunder's' Possible Breast Cancer Storyline

    Natalie Portman doesn’t know if “Thor: Love and Thunder” will include a breast cancer storyline for her character Jane Foster, but she’s definitely intrigued by the possibility. “It’s just very rare that these kinds of big entertainment films look at more serious, real-life issues,” she told Variety at L.A. Dance Project’s 8th annual fundraising gala [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content