By Andrea Thompson
It’s difficult to explain just what makes Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s “The Mustang” so appealing. It’s not like it’s doing anything new. It’s a very old story that audiences, especially American ones, have seen time and again. A man with a violent past bonds with and tames a similarly wild horse, and at the same grows and faces his own demons. However, it also isn’t accurate to say that it’s like we’re seeing it for the first time. Rather, it’s as if we’re seeing an old story become revitalized.
This more complicated appeal can probably be traced back to perspective. Much like Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider,” this isn’t just a female director’s exploration of a very masculine world, it’s a non-American one. Zhao hailed from China, and de Clermont-Tonnerre is a native of France. And aside from her fresh perspective on the western, she’s also exploring the American penal system.
A title card informs us that’s there’s still over 100,000 wild mustangs that still roam the U.S., but their existence is threatened due to increasingly limited resources and the privatization of public land. Many are sent to facilities, some are euthanized, and a relatively small number are trained and prepared for auction by prison inmates in rehabilitation therapy programs. One such inmate is Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts), an antisocial prisoner who’s freshly transferred from another prison and has been kept in isolation in both.
Roman openly admits he’s not good with people and doesn’t seem interested in becoming better with them. A quietly simmering ball of anger, he doesn’t so much show emotion as have periodic explosions of it. When his own daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon) comes to visit, he initially confuses her with someone else. He’s almost forced to address his many issues when he’s first assigned to work outside, then with a wild horse that he hears in its containment far before he sees it. Roman is drawn to him from the first, but just because they seem to have a kind of bond from the start doesn’t mean a smooth road.
Roman is just as reluctant to follow up on this bond as the horse is, and a particularly shocking scene has him losing his temper and outright punching his four-legged counterpart. After he overcomes his reluctance and begins researching and even rehearsing different training techniques, he also begins to bond with other people. That’s not to say this is a case of an innocent man who has been wrongly imprisoned. There’s little doubt of Roman’s guilt; the doubt comes from the question of whether he’ll actually rehabilitate himself once we find out just how he got to where he is.
There’s also greater authenticity in the fact that de Clermont-Tonnerre filmed on location in Nevada in an abandoned and active prison and filled her cast with non-professionals, including many former prisoners, with an emphasis on the truly beautiful landscape around them. There are a few missteps, such as a subplot that isn’t followed through, as well as an overdramatic ending that feels unnecessary in a film that’s already emotional enough as the men must part ways with the animals they’ve clearly formed close bonds with.
None of these missteps should indicate that de Clermont-Tonnerre is anything but a talent to watch. The fact that she does get so much right and gets us to empathize with Roman in her feature debut is a mark of what will hopefully be a long career.