The Mustang Review
Matthias Schoenaerts seems to have all the attributes needed to become a Hollywood action star, but it’s a career move he has continually resisted since transferring to English language films after shining in 2011’s Bullhead. Even when he’s fallen into standard-fare thrillers he’s aspired to offer more than his hulking physical appearance suggests he is good for. That said, he does seem to specialise in characters trapped by their own destructive masculinity and he does so once again in Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s debut feature, The Mustang.
Westerns typically provide fertile ground for exploration into rough-cut masculinity, and while Clermont-Tonnerre’s film is more of a miniaturised version of the genre, there is enough room provided to ask questions about suppressed male rage and internalised guilt. Schoenaerts stars as Roman Coleman, an inmate in a remote Nevada jail for 12 years who we hear gruffly tell prison psychologist (Connie Britton) “I’m not good with people,” as she prepares him to reintegrate with society.
As a result he’s assigned to outdoor maintenance shifting horse dung where he slowly comes into contact with the wild mustangs that are captured, trained and sold by the prison. The parallels being made between this untamed beast and the four-legged, free-roaming horses are made apparent early on, but it's a comparison made carefully with Clermont-Tonnerre grounding the film with genuine sincerity. In turn, it makes the softening of an emotionally repressed man convicted for a savage domestic assault just about work.
Roman befriends fellow inmate and experienced trainer, Henry (the always dependable Jason Mitchell) under the watchful eye of the programme’s boss, Myles (Bruce Dern). There is one particularly buck wild horse they are keeping in isolation, and naturally it is Roman who becomes the man to tame him. It is their growing bond that allows Schoenaerts to again demonstrate why his physicality can be put to better use than emptying a revolver clip. Roman is a man of few words and their interactions gradually tease out the rage boiling up inside. Brief scenes with an occasional female visitor (whose identity is revealed at the last moment) offer more insight into his backstory and urge to seek redemption.
Other subplots revolving around drug dealing and the murder of a fellow inmate are a little slight, despite eventually pointing towards further progression of Roman’s story. Cinematographer Ruben Impens (Raw, Beautiful Boy) shoots it all with an emotionally honesty that is refreshing to the eye and it plays an important role in soothing the fiery edges of Roman’s imposing stance.
Where we are left at the end feels like a culmination of a number of clunky beats that disrupt otherwise stellar work done both in-front of and behind the camera. In a film rooted in such a dusky reality it feels cheap and quite unnecessary. And while similar themes were touched upon more succinctly in recent films like Lean on Pete and The Rider, Clermont-Tonnerre has put together a solid debut that finds a rhythm between the gallop of hooves and the beating of the human heart.
The Mustang opens in UK cinemas on August 30.