The Mustang: You Know Who I Am, by David Bax
One of the more difficult things to accomplish in film is to make a viewer feel the climate, temperature or weather conditions inhabited by the characters. We tend to watch movies while seated comfortably in climate-controlled rooms. The last thing we want is to be shivering or sweltering. So it’s impressive how thoroughly director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre compels you to exist in the dry, northern Nevada winter in which her new film, The Mustang, takes place; with every gust of wind, you’ll feel your lips chap and the skin on your hands begin to crack. This deftness is just one example of de Clermont-Tonnerre’s talents and the care she takes to imbue an admittedly familiar story with uncommon weight and life.
Roman (Matthia Schoenaerts) has already been incarcerated for twelve years and has just finished a lengthy stint in solitary confinement when a prison psychologist (Connie Britton) nominates him for the correctional center’s wild horse training program, inspired by an actual program that exists in six states in which wild horses, captured by the Bureau of Land Management, are trained by prisoners and then sold at auction. Under the guidance of program director Myles (Bruce Dern) and fellow inmate Henry (Jason Mitchell), Roman, whose admission that he’s “not good with people” is a wild understatement, begins to learn how to be good with animals.
Hard men, razor wire, beautiful but stubborn horses, wide open vistas. You can probably diagram the visual hallmarks of The Mustang without even seeing it. But de Clermont-Tonnerre and cinematographer Ruben Impens (Felix van Groeningen’s longtime collaborator on films like The Broken Circle Breakdown and last year’s Beautiful Boy) keep our attention on the characters and their experiences. As a result, the prison and the Nevada countryside become the surroundings Roman and his cohorts inhabit, not the backdrops they stand in front of. Meanwhile, de Clermont-Tonnerre locates unexpected visual touches wherever she can, like the shot of inmates and skittish horses standing in a prison kitchen in the middle of the night, waiting out a thunderstorm amid flickering lights and shattered dishes.
Schoenaerts’ and Mitchell’s performances are The Mustang’s two pillars (with further support lent by Gideon Adlon as Roman’s daughter). Roman is precariously stoic and constantly fuming while Henry is a gregarious ball breaker. We will come to see that they have more in common than just their horses but de Clermont-Tonnerre and co-writers Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock resist the urge to give us heartwarming camaraderie or fraternity. They’re still in prison and their survival still depends on self-reliance and distrust.
Similarly, The Mustang avoids being too forward with obvious questions like, “Who is really taming whom?” When it does draw direct comparisons between inmates and equines, they’re not the most superficial ones. The movie’s opening shots depict wild mustangs being menaced by low flying government helicopters, scared into running directly into a waiting pen. They arrive at the prison terrified and furious, having lost their freedom through no fault of their own. And, in a smart move, the film refrains—for a while, at least—from telling us what crime landed Roman behind bars. Thus, we are invited to see him as a helplessly caged animal just like the horses.
So, again, The Mustang’s central conceit and allegories are not subtle ones. But the truth remains that programs like this one, not to mention animal therapy in general, do exist for a reason. By zeroing in empathetically on the psychological and emotional arc of her story, de Clermont-Tonnerre achieves power that far outweighs the predictability.