Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre initially wanted to make a documentary out of this film’s basic premise. Each year, thousands of wild horses are gathered and sent off to various facilities or farms. A few hundred are sent to prisons each year to be included in the Wild Horse Inmate Program. Inmates tame these horses to be sold at auctions to the highest bidder. Upon evaluating this program and its benefits, de Clermont-Tonnerre used these findings as a crux for her debut film, The Mustang.
The Mustang focuses on Roman Coleman, an inmate that seems to be a brick wall when it comes to emotion. Keeping to himself mostly, we witness his violent outbursts on more than one occasion. It becomes clear from the moment he appears on screen that Roman has no intention of reform. With intense control over his performance, actor Matthias Schoenaerts keeps his explosions concise and steady building. It isn’t until a pivotal moment that we witness the range Schoenaerts is capable of, and where Roman’s mindset now lies.
Once Roman discovers the Horse Program, The Mustang takes shape into a film about rehabilitation. The head trainer of the program, a grizzled Bruce Dern, teaches Roman that some horses can be broken while others cannot. And this is repeatedly put to the test until some progress is made. For both Roman and his particularly wild horse, they must be completely dispirited before any sort of growth can occur. And before we realize, it has already occurred and the process truly begins. Unfortunately, this is where a feeling of uneasiness begins to settle for The Mustang.
The film begins deliberately slow and it relishes in its beautiful landscapes and solemn tone. However, the crux of the film simply feels as if it is unjustifiably traveling from beat to beat. The pacing rushes through moments that are enjoyable, but this costs the film a great deal in terms of emotion. From certain tensions boiling to arcs coming to a close, the impact seems to get lost completely. Luckily, the solid performances elevate these moments to be admired in some sense.
It is unfortunate because the peaks of The Mustang are very powerful, and makes us yearn for more. There is a particularly disorienting scene wherein a thunderstorm is shaking the whole prison. Lights are flashing, there are absolutely jarring cuts, and it is absolute chaos. The prison seems as if it is going to be ripped from the earth and thrown away. Then, in a group meeting with Connie Britton, the prison psychologist, we see a different side of the prison entirely. It provides deep introspection for the characters and allows us to ponder just how quickly life could change. Britton barely has any screen time, but makes use of the few moments she has.
Something confusing about the film overall is its ultimate message. From the opening statistics to immediately looking a horse in the eye, its clear the animal is the focal point of the film. It was the original intention of the director to create a documentary on the Horse Program, and it’s evident. There is even a plethora of imagery that could bring tears to the eyes of the audience due to certain treatment. Yet the statistics we are shown, and the film itself, also show the benefits of this program. It almost feels as if de Clermont-Tonnerre wants viewers to question what we value more, the journey of the inmates or the horse.
Overall, The Mustang is definitely a film that deserves some commendation. At its best, it depicts horses in all their beauty and just how brilliant they can be. It has humorous moments littered throughout that make way for a more wholesome experience. The juxtaposition between the tight jail cells versus the wide landscapes of the desert show potential for future films. And to top it all off, this feels very original and that must always be applauded. With a slight amount of polish and perhaps a more concrete film, de Clermont-Tonnerre will definitely be a name to keep an eye on.
What is your favorite movie revolving around horses? What makes this animal such a great backbone to a film? Let us know in the comments below!
Focus Features will be releasing The Mustang in theaters on March 15th.