“The Mustang” is a small film with a big punch.
Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock, has crafted a stirring, intimate portrait of a condemned man who finds comfort in an unlikely place – training wild mustangs.
Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Roman Coleman, a violent criminal whose rage continues during his 12th year of incarceration. Roman tells his therapist (Connie Britton) that he doesn’t like people, and his interactions with his estranged daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon), who comes for visits, only confirms his inability to connect.
Roman is given the chance to participate in a rehabilitation therapy program where inmates work with wild mustangs with the eventual goal of selling the horses to the locals (a program that actually exists in some Western prisons). As he learns the ropes from program director Myles (Bruce Dern in a solid supporting performance) and fellow inmate Henry (Jason Mitchell who is also solid), Roman begins to connect with a horse that seems to have the same bottled-up rage that he does.
It’s a bond that has a deep effect on both man and horse.
“The Mustang” reminded me a lot of last year’s beautiful film “The Rider” in the way it takes old-school Western themes and puts them into a modern story rather seamlessly. De Clermont-Tonnerre really takes the time to allow the audience to get to know Roman, even when Roman doesn’t really want to be known.
The moments between Roman and his daughter, which build to a reveal of a family tragedy that is the reason Roman is in prison, are fascinating. It’s an awkward tension where you can feel that they both want to heal old wounds but are not sure how they can.
Schoenaerts’ work is outstanding here, but he also shines in the scenes with the horse, who is as wild and reckless as Roman. That bond allows Roman to temper some of his rage in a way that never feels forced in the film.
About the only misstep in “The Mustang” comes in a drug-smuggling subplot that feels out of place with the rest of the material. For the most part, de Clermont-Tonnerre keeps “The Mustang” focused on Roman’s quiet struggles, creating a powerful character study that will stay with you long after the final credits roll.