Written and directed by Laure de Clerment-Tonnerre in her feature directorial debut, co-written with Brock Norman Brock and Mona Fastvold, the story of Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a violent convict, who is given the chance to participate in a rehabilitation therapy program involving the training of wild mustangs. Also starring: Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern, Gideon Adlon, Connie Britton, Josh Stuart, Thomas Smittle, Keith Johnson and Noel Gugliemi.
It’s clear very quickly what sort of journey this film is going to be, with the almost gentle cinematography of the horses in its opening rather than cliched views of stallions charging through the desert, it’s overt close-ups catch incredible detail which continues to occur throughout. Partnered with a very subtle but extremely effective score from Jed Kurzel, you know that you’re going to get an emotional story and that’s exactly what happens. From beginning to end the film is quiet, thoughtful and purposeful, watching a man who is fraught with emotions that he’s never learnt what to do with, find passion, direction and calm from working with horses is meaningful and moving.
When you’re looking for an actor to fill a role of a man with so much bottled up emotion that he’s ready to lash out at any possible moment, but to also hold a kindness or caring below the rocky surface, you can never go wrong with Matthias Schoenaerts. It’s genuinely surprising that this actor doesn’t have more recognition considering the incredible work he’s done in films like Rust and Bone or Far from the Madding Crowd, but unfortunately so far for the most part Hollywood has only called his name for less than desirable features. However, this film is a brilliant example of his talent and the incredibly strong presence that he has onscreen, Roman is a man of few words but Schoenaerts acting translates what’s left unsaid. There are a few crucial moments where he gets to let that emotion out and they’re utterly heart-breaking. He’s got some great support in the form of Mudbound’s Jason Mitchell, legendary Bruce Dern, Gideon Adlon who you may recognise from Blockers and one of the real-life success stories of the program that the film is based on Thomas Smittle. Smittle is a newcomer to acting but does a fantastic job, likely helped by how affected his life has been by the program and it comes through brilliantly in his performance, it will be very interesting to see more from him so here’s hoping he gets another opportunity.
The Wild Horse Program is a wonderful idea and a fantastic concept to build a film around, having violent convicts learn patience, communication and understanding from training and caring for wild horses seems to be an incredibly rewarding and effective experience. The particular rather stubborn and aggressive horse that Roman ends up working with is the perfect metaphor for his character, angry, misunderstood and full of emotions but having no idea what to do with them other than to strike out. The writing is extremely well done to explore that idea but to not rush into anything, we’re not immediately told why Roman is in prison, the story comes through naturally during his visits with his daughter (Adlon) and anger-management meetings. It holds that purposeful and slow nature all throughout the script, allowing the emotions of the story to come through without needing to make them overt or thrust a lot of unnecessary dialogue and explanations. There are a couple of surprises in store but for the most part the writing and direction lead you where the story is going, you could consider it foreshadowing but done in a more subtle manner.
While the film does certainly bring forth a gentleness and kindness, there’s no mistaking that it also isn’t afraid to throw discomfort and coldness your way but the cinematography, direction and score all work hand in hand with the actors to create a perfect balance. Watching the characters bond and build relationships with these horses is incredibly moving and even though there is also Roman’s entire personal storyline, it would be interesting even without it because once it arrives at the moment for them to say goodbye to the horses as they’re sold at auction, it’s heartrending. It’s a wonderful thing to see a story of convicts without it being entirely violent and full of drugs or gangs, although granted there is a little of both in the story but it’s far from any real focus, the film appropriately reflects the journey of rehabilitation that the program was set up to facilitate. Primarily, it’s a story of learning to care and listen to others, to understand your emotions and control them in a healthy way, but it’s also one of acceptance and forgiveness.
The Mustang is an example of true to life stories that should be told, amongst an array of unnecessary and repetitive content, rather than fickle true crime, it’s a meaningful story with a positive message and a burgeoning hope. Schoenaerts gives another powerful performance that has gone criminally under-watched. Most people will know the significance of creating a connection with an animal and how meaningful it can be and this film captures that perfectly, in a way that has so many positive outcomes. While there is a darkness to this film, ultimately it shows redemption through personal progress and it’s extremely uplifting to learn about such a valuable program. It’s a rare example of not stigmatising those who have spent time in prison, it’s showing that change and rehabilitation are possible. All its elements work together to create something that’s emotional, thoughtful and hopeful.