On paper, the plot of The Mustang – the lyrical, touching, and hard-bitten debut feature from writer-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre – seems like fodder for an orthodoxly heartwarming breed of American-indie cinema. (Indeed, The Mustang premiered not in Clermont-Tonnerre’s native France but at the Sundance Film Festival, and was developed in the creative laboratories at the fest’s parent Sundance Institute.) Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a convicted felon, currently serving out a prolonged prison sentence in an unspecified Western state. Perpetually oscillating between seething rage and slump-shouldered silence, he’s the dictionary definition of antisocial. An early scene with a prison psychologist (Connie Britton, in a glorified cameo) establishes that Roman has routinely been moved in and out of isolation for various violent infractions. “I’m not good with people,” he admits, squinting impatiently. It’s perhaps for this reason – plus some Hail Mary exasperation – that the psychologist slots him into a maintenance job in an unusual federal rehabilitation program. Under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management, select inmates assist with the taming of captured wild horses for eventual auction to law-enforcement agencies and other buyers.
Within the first 15 minutes or so of The Mustang, most viewers will have figured out where this story is headed. Although initially assigned to a shit-shoveling detail, the reluctant Roman is eventually paired up with a particularly headstrong mustang, which he dubs Marquis. The two gradually establish a tenuous bond that offers Roman’s troubled soul the tantalizing possibility of spiritual absolution. Given the wretched conditions inside the prison – which is presently simmering with racial tensions and a drug-trafficking turf war – as well as Roman’s icy, stunted relationship with his pregnant daughter, Martha (Blockers’ Gideon Adlon), the dusty little corral where the convict trains his horse feels like a relative sanctuary. These sessions are not without their challenges, however, between Roman’s volatile temper and the mustang’s almost insolent refusal to even acknowledge commands, let alone accept a saddle and rider.
It’s the stuff of trite but serviceable indie drama, right down to the feisty fellow convict, Henry (Jason Mitchell), who shows Roman the (literal) ropes, and the grizzled veteran trainer, Myles (Bruce Dern), who offers the protagonist both caustic reproach and folksy reassurance. However, two things serve to sharply distinguish The Mustang from similar films about an unlikely animal-human connection. First is the screenplay – co-written by the director, Mona Fastvold, and Brock Normal Brock – which trades in familiar archetypes but never leans on them excessively for color. Indeed, The Mustang is a remarkably sparing film, dialogue-wise, preferring to allow the bulked-up Schoenaerts’ marvelously sensitive performance to do the emotional heavy lifting. Roman might be a reticent loner, but he’s also the sort of man who wears his surface-level feelings on his sleeve, despite himself. This obligates Schoenaerts to convey bold strokes of emotion with the sort of non-verbal acting that it is at once forceful and fettered, and the actor rises to the occasion splendidly.
De Clermont-Tonnerre and her co-scripters are keenly attuned to how easily their scenario could slip into unearned, maudlin cliché, and their approach to Roman’s arc is sagely and refreshingly restrained. Contrary to what one might glean from a nickel summary of the plot, The Mustang doesn’t fully embrace the notion that taming Marquis offers Roman a chance for a transformative redemption. There’s little sense that freedom – or, at least, an eventual return to the world outside the prison walls – holds much allure for Roman, who seems to regard his physical confinement as a justified penance for his crimes. When the viewer ultimately learns exactly what offense landed him in prison, it proves to be shocking in both its viciousness and its awful banality. During a tense visiting-room conversation with his daughter, Roman briefly (and naïvely) seems to indulge the idea that breaking a mustang will somehow atone for or counter-balance his heavy karmic burden. Fortunately, the film slaps this down, and slaps it down hard – not with lugubrious miserabilism, but stony realism. There’s no un-doing all the terrible things Roman has done, and a few weeks of one-on-one time with a wild animal isn’t going to work some profound change on his deeply etched patterns of behavior.
This kind of hard-nosed pragmatism is consistently employed to gently rein in the story’s drama, preventing it from straying into florid hyperbole or simplistic tidiness. Indeed, The Mustang’s glib marketing tagline – “Untamed Souls. Kindred Spirits.” – is almost hilariously off-the-mark when one considers the actual content of the film. The horse’s wild nature is not used to re-cast Roman’s rage and penchant for violence as admirable traits in the cowboy idiom. If anything, Marquis’ untamed animal purity makes for an unflattering contrast with the convict, who is, at this point in his life, a perhaps hopelessly maladjusted ball of toxic impulses. What Marquis does offer to Roman, however, is a means to discover within himself some modest capacity for compassion and selflessness. “Empathy” is often used as little more than an empty, moralistic buzzword these days, but that doesn’t diminish the essential psychological epiphany that it denotes: looking into the eyes of another individual – human or animal – and recognizing that the pain glimpsed within is the same as one’s own pain. In the confines of the little prison corral, Roman grows attuned to Marquis’ fear, fury, and suffering, and it wounds him in a way that he hasn’t permitted himself to be wounded before. (Or, at least, not in a long, long time.)
The second way in which The Mustang sets itself apart is its downright cinematic loveliness. In terms of its subject matter and its dust-caked realism, the film perhaps inevitably invites comparison’s to last year's superb character study from director Chloé Zhao, The Rider. However, although Zhao was attuned to the mythic resonance of that film’s South Dakota landscapes, her feature unequivocally embraced a stripped-down verité look. In contrast, de Clermont-Tonne and cinematographer Ruben Impens – who so fantastically captured the ugly modernist spaces of the French-Belgian horror feature Raw (2016) – amplify the poetic in The Mustang’s visual vocabulary.
Actor-turned-director de Clermont-Tonne previously appeared in painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), and although it’s probably a stretch to suggest that the feature was formative for her as a filmmaker, it’s undeniable that The Mustang favors a Schnabel-like impressionism. One can discern it in de Clermont-Tonne’s affinity for gauzy shallow focus and tight, handheld closeups; in the purposely chaotic editing that Géraldine Mangenot at times employs to emphasize terror and confusion; and in the film’s evocative establishing shots, which serve as both pointed metaphors and almost abstract meditative images. Perhaps most gratifyingly, the director and her crew often swerve away from the expected rhythms of the indie drama – smash-cutting to the aftermath of an event rather than lingering on it, for example, or winnowing the hackneyed “training montage” down into a handful of lean, expressive glimpses and then scattering them sparsely throughout the narrative. (There is more than a little Terrence Malick in de Clermont-Tonne’s style as well – a point reinforced by a Days of Heaven-evoking voice-over monologue that closes the film.)
Overall, it’s a lovely work, aesthetically speaking, and a potent reminder that the sort of grainy, washed-out digital photography that The Mustang employs needn’t be synonymous with ugliness. It’s also a fitting look for a film that manages to be at once a gritty character study and an elegiac tone poem. The adroit way that de Clermont-Tonne syncretizes these two aspects of her feature, such that they resemble a rider and a steed working in wordless harmony, is the most intricate achievement in an exceedingly accomplished debut.