A little known Federal program is the theater for a beautiful film about wildness, poor impulse control, and redemption. The animal in us and the connection of elemental forces are intertwined majestically in superb acting, an original score, and in flowing cinematography. “ The Mustang” is not to be missed.
To begin with, actor Matthias Schoenaerts is a smoldering inferno of anger: equally angry at himself, his circumstances, his kindred spirits. The Belgian actor plays Roman Coleman. He has violently pushed his wife in a domestic brawl. She falls and cracks her head against the kitchen sink. None of this do we see. His sorrow is apparent as he tries to reconnect with the daughter who was left to care for her brain-damaged mother.
This power house of a film includes one of the most effective group sessions captured on film. Much is due to good writing and to Connie Britton as a no-nonsense prison social worker. Finally, she gets a role of substance where intelligence and empathy does not need to be second fiddle to a Texas husband or to “ Friday Night Lights”. Britton shines in her own right. Her few scenes are electric, focused, and productive. As a talented clinician, she inspires us to want to help these prisoners, too. This master class on respect, could be used in MSW classrooms nationwide.
“The Mustang” begins with text information: 100,000 wild Mustang are culled by the government every year for population control. Then sounds of snorts, nuzzling, and thundering hooves bombard us. With the mountains as their only corral, the horses with manes flying dominate the screen. Isolation and freedom co-mingle. In a sharp editing switch, we see psychologist/ social worker Britton changing tact from reading multiple-choice answers to convincing prisoners that she is giving them some control by offering them entrance into a prison program taming wild horses.
Discordant sounds and corralled horses remind us of what Roman is able to tell the psychiatrist: ” I am not good with people”. Both man and beast will first have to establish their direction. One of my favorite shots is of the Mustang and Roman both on their sides, faces on the dirt, staring in each other’s eyes. There is the proverbial storm brewing.
There are three-story arcs based on Roman’s relationships. One is with Myles ( Bruce Dern) who heads the training program where wild mustang will be readied for government auction. He is a former inmate with 42 years on the job. Myles values the horses and the men. He tells Roman that he will see that he spends ten years in a psyche ward if he ever hits another horse. His candor ultimately saves both man and horse.
Another relationship is with fellow prison wrangler, Henry Cooper ( Jason Mitchell ) . Henry urges Roman to name his horse, be patient, and remember “ears to the front” mean he is happy,” ears to the back” means he is mad. Penned in by razor wire mountains, Henry gets into stealing and selling the drug used to calm down the horses. He has competition with Roman’s roommate, and teasing banter is cut short.
Roman’s pregnant daughter visits him to get his signature. She needs him to release her grandmother’s home for sale. Actress Gideon Adlon plays daughter Martha. She carries just the right level of resentment and resistance to her father’s proclamations of love and regret. Her words, “ I’m listening” are heartfelt.
”The Mustang” is a Robert Redford production, and it is French director’s Laure de Clement-Tonnerre’s directional debut. I found the film powerful and positive. The original score sublime. Kudos to Jed Kurzel and all.