The Mustang is a unique character-driven film that is headlined by a jaw-dropping performance by Matthias Schoenaerts.
There’s something about a film that strips away all the melodrama and fluff it could have succumbed to if it was family-friendly or feel-good. Small budget or independent films are about getting down to the brass tacks of it all, leaving the clichés and token characters at the door. With the new film The Mustang, you might not be treated to a soaring musical score or be transported into another time or place, but you will be gifted a chance to see an intimate character study where the viewer will feel like the fish out of water.
Matthias Schoenaert plays a convict named Roman, a man who was put behind bars for a violent crime and has little control over his anger management issues. He is selected to participate in a rehabilitation program that uses inmates to train untamed mustangs, just outside the prison walls, as they practice anger management techniques instead of physically breaking the animals in.
What makes The Mustang so authentic is the way it lets the rehabilitation program unfold, then slowly reveals why the program can be so effective if the participants give themselves over to it. The training of horses is a practice that takes patience, time, control, and self-awareness. These are all traits these violent men do not have, always reacting with a split-second decision without thinking things through. Later in the film, each prisoner tells a story about the defining moment that brought them to the northern Nevada correctional facility, and it’s the same one; they all took a few seconds before committing their heinous acts.
Matthias Schoenaerts has the innate chameleon-like ability to disappear into several character types and can be placed in almost any film genre (so much so, half the time everyone confuses Schoenaerts for Garrett Hedlund). He continues his strong and varied filmography with a performance that is broodingly stoic one minute, then a live-wired one the next. His ability to display a believable flip-of-a-switch rage is hair-raising. The scene, though, with his daughter, where he seeks attempts to clean the slate by unburdening his thoughts, is a revelation and brings his character full-circle.
The Mustang was directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, a French actress who has directed a handful of episodes of television and, most notably, the short film Rabbit. Her film is a character study and a very good one at that. The only issue her film has is that you are never fully immersed and transported into a full-fledged world, but instead, you are offered just a mere glimpse of a program that is used as a backdrop to show Roman’s redemption.
The Mustang was shot at Nevada State Prison in Carson City, N.V. and is based on a real program being used at the facility. The film has some notable cast members, including Bruce Dern as the program’s crusty director, Jason Mitchell as a fellow prisoner who takes Roman under his wing to teach him the finer points, and Blockers‘ Gideon Adlon is remarkable in the handful of scenes she’s in as his estranged daughter. The film also casts Thomas Smittle as a prisoner, who was an inmate and real-life member of the program the film uses as its inspiration.
Clermont-Tonnerre’s film is a thoughtful and intimate drama that builds a slow burn throughout its 96-minutes. It may not be a totally immersive experience, but it is a unique one that offers a character-driven film that is headlined by a jaw-dropping performance by Matthias Schoenaerts. The film is well worth your money, if not your time.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.