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In Theaters: THE MUSTANG (2019)

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THE MUSTANG
(France/Belgium - 2019)

Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. Written by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Mona Fastvold, Brock Norman Brock and Benjamin Charbit. Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern, Connie Britton, Gideon Adlon, Josh Stewart, Noel Gugliemi, Thomas Smittle, Keith Johnson. (R, 96 mins)

Initially developed at the Sundance Institute (Robert Redford is among the truckload of credited producers), THE MUSTANG is the debut of French actress-turned-filmmaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF ADELE BLANC-SEC), and if you're a guy who like a good UMBERTO D, BRIAN'S SONG or FIELD OF DREAMS man-weepie, then you're gonna want to see this one right away. Incarcerated at Nevada State Prison for the last 12 years, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. Only able to express himself through rage and violence, he's spent most of his prison time in solitary confinement, preferring to be alone and resorting to behaviors and actions that he knows will keep him isolated from the other inmates. "I'm not good with people," he mumbles the prison psychologist (Connie Britton), who's prepping him for his latest return to general population from solitary. She assigns him to work on the outdoor maintenance crew, shoveling piles of shit from the prison's horse-training program, funded by the state as a rehabilitation technique and to fill a demand for captured wild mustangs to be properly trained and groomed to sell at auction. The program is run by elderly rancher Myles (Bruce Dern), who's earned the respect of the inmates under his charge and repays it in kind, with inmate Henry (Jason Mitchell) designated the head trainer.






Roman is drawn to one horse in particular, who's kept in a locked stable and spends all day, every day kicking on the door in rage over his confinement. Myles gives Roman a shot at working with him, and it goes well for a while until Roman, furious over a disastrous visit from his estranged, pregnant daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon), takes his anger out on the disobedient horse, violently pummeling him with a series of punches. Myles has him thrown back in solitary as punishment, but he gets a second chance when he's called to help move some horses inside the prison kitchen when a dangerous storm approaches the area. Slowly but surely, Roman and the horse, who he names "Marquis," begin to bond, with Myles and Henry remarking that no one was able to break him until Roman came along. De Clermont-Tonnerre and her co-writers (including Nicolas Winding Refn's BRONSON collaborator Brock Norman Brock) aren't really dealing with complex metaphors or deep symbolism here, as it's quite obvious that Roman and Marquis are two sides of the same coin, kindred spirits who feel constantly trapped and violently lash out at anyone who tries to get close to them.


THE MUSTANG's strengths come not from its formulaic story arc but from its performances. Belgian actor Schoenaerts first began getting attention in art-house and foreign film circles with 2011's BULLHEAD and 2012's RUST AND BONE, and while he's made some impression with American audiences with roles in 2014's THE DROP and as Jennifer Lawrence's duplicitous uncle in 2018's RED SPARROW, THE MUSTANG might prove to be his English-language breakthrough. It's a very internalized performance, and as Roman, he's tightly-wound and seething, but with his eyes conveying the pain of regret and a complete inability to communicate. While he has frightening outbursts, it's in the quiet moments that Schoenaerts speaks volumes about this character, and you might be dead inside if you can keep it together at the pivotal moment when Roman and Marquis reach a mutual respect and understanding of one another. Schoenaerts gets solid support from Mitchell (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON) and Dern, who's just perfect in a role that has him getting a little piece of Robert Duvall's "grizzled old coot" action. De Clermont-Tonnerre's messaging gets a little ham-fisted at times, and there's an underdeveloped subplot with Roman's shitbag cellmate (Josh Stewart from the COLLECTOR movies) forcing Roman and Henry to procure ketamine from the horse vet's office, but at its core, THE MUSTANG is an empathetic and compassionate character study of rehabilitation and redemption.


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