'The Mustang': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Powerful affirmation of belief in rehabilitation is much less sentimental than it sounds.

Matthias Schoenaerts plays a prison inmate assigned to work with horses in Laure de Clermont-Tonnere's drama.

Reworking her 2014 short film Rabbit, in which an incarcerated woman was given a bunny as a therapy animal, Laure De Clermont-Tonnerre broadens her scope in The Mustang, tying this film's hopes for rehabilitation to an animal that is hardwired into American mythology. A bedrock-solid performance by Matthias Schoenaerts is central to this humanist film, which is rooted in the belief that even broken people can grow. Tying his character's story to a single wild horse is a smart move both artistically and commercially.

Schoenaerts plays Roman, who is in prison for a violent crime and has just done a long stint in isolation. We meet him during a visit with a prison psychologist (Connie Britton, in a two-scene cameo), whose questions initially sound like an out-of-touch version of Blade Runner's Voight-Kampff test. Switching approaches when he refuses to speak, she asks directly: How does Roman feel about reentering the prison's general population? When he acknowledges that he doesn't want it because "I'm not good with people," she offers to give him a job working outdoors. She doesn't say he'll be shoveling horse excrement all day.

This prison participates in a program run by the Bureau of Land Management in which wild horses are culled from public lands and tamed by inmates, then sold at auction. Bruce Dern is perfectly cast as Myles, a crabby civilian who shares a lifetime of knowledge with his convict cowboys. When Myles notices what may be an affinity between Roman and a "particularly crazed" mustang, he plucks him from poop-shoveling duty and tells Henry (Jason Mitchell) to show him how to work directly with animals.

(That affinity is demonstrated in a primal-feeling scene in which the horse, confined in a small wooden stall, bangs relentlessly on its walls until Roman is drawn near by curiosity. Smartly, De Clermont-Tonnerre does nothing more to underline the obvious parallels between the captured beast and his imprisoned counterpart. But their connection sparks a great curiosity about horse-training in Roman, and soon he's using the jail's illicit trading system to get equestrian magazines.)

Roman's curiosity makes him vulnerable. In his first few times alone with the horse in a corral, Schoenaerts shows how easy it is to wound a man who has let his guard down, and how quickly that frustration turns to violence. Roman is not a natural at using his voice and body to steer the horse around the pen, and his temper is easily triggered. In one of the script's most on-the-nose (but appropriate) moments, Henry promises, "if you wanna control the horse, first you gotta control yourself."

That's advice an old hand would give a trainee even if he wasn't serving time for a lack of self-control, but it's the core life lesson Roman has to learn. In a telling second encounter with Britton's character, she leads a group anger-management session, going around the room and asking two questions: How long have you been in jail, and how long was it between the thought of your crime and the crime itself? Nobody here waited more than a few seconds to act on their impulses; all will pay for the decision for many years.

The details of Roman's crime and its consequences will emerge gradually, over a series of visits from the pregnant daughter (Gideon Adlon, barely recognizable as the about-to-bloom nerd in Blockers) he hasn't seen in many years. At each visit, Roman is more communicative than he was at the last. How does his wordless rapport with an animal enable him to allow language back into his life? As in other restorative therapies that involve treating convicts like human beings, the reasons may be less important than the results.

Without ignoring the familiar dangers of prison life, the film tracks the quiet but growing camaraderie Roman finds among the cowboys as they get the horses ready for auction. Inevitably, bittersweet moments await. But De Clermont-Tonnerre shows admirable restraint, knowing that, in her carefully constructed frames, it can be enough just to get Roman's newly compassionate eyes into a close-up with the expressionless eye of a horse.

Production company: Legende Films
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern, Gideon Adlon, Connie Britton
Director: Laure De Clermont-Tonnerre
Screenwriters: Laure De Clermont-Tonnerre, Mona Fastvold, Brock Norman Brock
Producer: Alain Goldman
Executive producers: Robert Redford, Molly Hallam
Director of photography: Ruben Impens
Production designer: Carlos Conti
Costume designer: April Napier
Editor: Geraldine Mangenot
Composer: Jed Kurzel
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Rated R, 96 minutes