Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) isn’t an easy man to talk to, to connect with, to befriend, or to love. He barely speaks. His face never breaks away from a blankness that seems like a mask — or like a dead man. His breathing is often the loudest thing about him. He stands alone, and he’ll hold a hard stare, but little attracts his interest. He’s serving his sentence a minute at a time, an hour at a time, a day at a time, a methodology that has kept him in solitary for most of the 12 years he’s been incarcerated.
The Mustang unravels bits and pieces of Roman Coleman at a slow but steady pace, allowing his relationships with other people — and with the film’s titular mustang — to speak for him in a way he can’t seem to. And there’s an intentionality to how director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and co-writers Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock unveil this all, like each piece of information is a puzzle piece they’re dropping onto the board once you think there’s nowhere else for the game to go. Sometimes those elements are clichéd (the film’s most uneven moments are the ones that go the typical “prison is violent and bad” route) and sometimes they’re overwhelmingly affecting. Much of The Mustang may feel familiar — if you heeded my zealous horse beat recommendation to see Lean on Pete last year, for instance — but that’s because the man-and-horse formula is a cinematic classic, one I particularly enjoy. And when The Mustang subverts your expectations for that dynamic, it works very well indeed.
The film, which was shot on location at the closed-in-2012 Nevada State Prison in Carson City, Nev., adds a fictional layer to a real-life program maintained by the Bureau of Land Management, which rounds up mustangs each year (about 100,000 of the wild horses roam the western U.S.) and transport them to be trained by inmates at federal prisons. After the inmates have trained the horses for about 12 weeks, the horses are auctioned off — to work in border patrol or for police departments or at ranches or wherever else — and the money earned goes back into the program. The New York Times has written about it, and it’s another example of how the federal government uses inmate labor in ways you would never expect — remember the female inmates who were helping battle wildfires in California last year, for about $1 per day? (Yes, the New York Times also wrote about them.)
The Mustang uses Roman as an entry point into this story: As a recent transfer to the prison who has spent most of his time in solitary, he’s assigned to the prison’s psychologist (Connie Britton and her glorious hair!), who encourages him (in an entirely one-sided conversation) to get involved with an outdoor assignment. So he ends up shoveling horse shit, immediately befriended by one of the horse-training program’s stars, Henry (Jason Mitchell, who I was so pleased to see after his exceptional turn in Mudbound), who commands respect from his fellow inmates and the horses themselves for his firm but guiding hand. And although Roman has no idea how to interact with horses, has never spent time with one, has no idea what to do, he’s drawn to a particular mustang that’s cooped up, locked away from the others, for its wildness and its roughness. The mustang won’t let anyone approach him, won’t let anyone get near him, and so it’s a shock to trainer Myles (Bruce Dern, the literal walking definition of “salty”) that the horse initially lets Roman in.
Could Roman succeed in this program? Perhaps. Perhaps he could become the kind of man who is changed by the companionship of a horse, who learns how to love and be empathetic, who transforms into someone different from who he was. But The Mustang doesn’t commit to that storyline entirely, and it’s a better film for it. Roman wants to impress his daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon) with stories about working with the horse he names Marcus, but she’s thoroughly disinterested. She visits her father out of obligation — and because she wants him to sign emancipation papers so she can move away with her boyfriend — and her takedown of Roman late in the film, where she lays out all the ways he’s hurt her, is staggering in its honesty. Martha isn’t ruthless, but it’s going to take more from Roman to drive her toward forgiveness, and she’s right to hold back — the film doesn’t want to sell us on Roman’s totally redemptive turn, either. The same goes for Roman’s relationship with Henry, who as played by Mitchell is a marvel, a man who easily moves between joking around with his fellow riders and calmly training the horses to sly deception and a refusal to back down. Although Roman and Henry get along, each of them makes choices that the other can’t fully support or understand, and it doesn’t help that their respective races land them on separate sides of the prison divide. (Per usual, by the way, Mitchell is a standout.)
The imagery of The Mustang is key in driving home these varying worlds, the gorgeous openness of the land where the mustangs roam free and the industrial cramp of the prison in which the men are confined. Cinematographer Ruben Impens (doing something a little bit different here after his work on last year’s Beautiful Boy and the cannibal horror Raw) frames this setting like a series of paintings with one incongruous piece: a team of horses galloping and racing against a backdrop of sun-drenched mountains, while a helicopter drones above them; the riders on their horses in the wide-open dusty land, all dressed in their orange Department of Corrections jumpsuits; the men venturing out during a ferocious thunderstorm to guide their horses to safety inside of a fluorescently lit prison building, where the horses’ hooves paw against grates in the floor. All these iconic Western images contrasted with the stark reality of imprisonment, with the fact that these fences are closing to keep the men and the horses in instead of opening to allow them out.
That’s not to say all of these men are good — again, The Mustang doesn’t only operate in terms that are so black and white. Perhaps that’s why the components of the film that do adhere to such a simplistic formula feel so disappointing (in particular, a supporting turn from Josh Stewart as Roman’s white-power inmate; his performance here is as flat as he was in season two of The Punisher). The film excels when it considers ideas of forgiveness and resentment, of freedom and incarceration, of acceptance and resistance — in the grey areas between those dualities is where The Mustang finds the most human of truths.
The Mustang is playing in limited release around the U.S.
Image sources (in order of posting): Focus Features, Focus Features, Focus Features