In the opening moments of The Mustang, we observe a group of wild horses resting on a sprawling western plain in an almost eery silence. The scene is jolted, however, when a helicopter swoops in to corral the creatures into captivity. They’ll eventually be “broken in” and trained by a group of inmates at a Nevada correctional facility, all of them trapped inside a cage of their own.
As you may have expected, the central character of The Mustang is one of these inmates: Roman Coleman, played by Matthias Schoenaerts (Red Sparrow), an oppressively silent brute of a man who has willingly kept himself detained for many years, as if he has no intention of every returning to the general population.
Regardless, Roman’s new detention facility has other plans for him. He’s placed into the aforementioned program, which is designed to use inmate labor to prepare horses for public auction. From there, a contentious bond starts to form between not just Roman and his chosen horse—a wild mustang with a ferocious temper—but also his fellow inmates and a teenage daughter who visits him.
The Mustang plays on a variety of abstract, emotional beats reminiscent of other recent frontier films, specifically in the downbeat and grueling story from last year’s The Rider and even Lean on Pete to some extent. The pent up anger, sadness, and uselessness of the human condition can be efficiently expressed through natural settings that defy our technologically steel-shaped world, after all. That said, The Mustang is probably a more polished experienced than The Rider; it’s paced and shot more memorably with key scenes that shine as brilliant, if not overly sentimental metaphors.
But the plot mechanics of Mustang aren’t nearly as inventive or heartbreaking, despite a strong and balanced performance from Schoenaerts. In a low moment early in the film, Roman resorts to a burst of animal cruelty he is immediately reprimanded for, but his subsequent reckoning plateaus as the script settles into cloying heart-string plucking we’ve seen before, only this time the “boy and his horse” are fellow captives.
The bright spots of the film lie in the character matchups, as various actors contend with Roman’s boiling self-hatred. Henry (played by Jason Mitchell) is the first to try and show Roman the ropes of horse-training, and he offers a much-needed energy that lifts the film’s soggy mood. Dern does a fine job balancing the line between tough, unlikable, but also likable enough. The characters certainly have impressive things to say when given a decent line, but it’s the structure of the film that ultimately lets the final product down. Especially with Connie Britton, who plays a psychologist who appears to be missing a crucial scene toward the end.
Still, this is an impressive directorial debut by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, a French actress who has recently worked on television and now her first film. Clermont-Tonnerre also co-wrote the film with Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock, and you may recognize the work of the cinematography by Ruben Impens, known for other European and American collaborations: he shot Dirty God most recently, but also last year’s Beautiful Boy and the cult hit Raw from 2016. His work here is most impressive when it captures the cramped confines of a prison cell without overplaying the point.
With all the talent involved, it’s no wonder that the film mostly rises above its unbalanced script. The driving message of The Mustang is a confused one. It wants the audience to wonder about the effects of rehabilitation, but also about how angry creatures of different shapes and sizes should be let out into the open, freed from either themselves or society. The film has a conclusive ending, but not a particularly potent answer to its own central question about the internal and external forces that bind us.