Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Release Date: March 29, 2019
Taking place in a northern Nevada prison in the desert, The Mustang tells the story of inmate Roman Colman’s road to rehabilitation. Played by Matthias Schoenaerts, Colman is introverted and short-tempered, like a time bomb waiting to explode on whoever slightly irritates him.
Because of his inability to play nice with others, he is given a job that doesn’t involve working with other people: shoveling horse shit. The supervisor of the horse training program (Bruce Dern) forces more responsibility on Colman, making him a trainer of wild mustangs that will be auctioned off to local law enforcement later in the year. The film follows his trials and tribulations as Colman tames this wild beast and the inner growth that comes along with this challenge.
The Mustang is based on a real program that has been successful in multiple states. The state rounds up wild mustangs, has inmates train them, and sells them off to fund the program. We’re given information on how it helps with the overpopulation of wild mustangs and the success rate of rehabilitated prisoners. A win-win for both sides.
Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre comes out of the gate hot in her directorial debut. Having only a few short films and TV episodes under her belt, she made the most out of her first feature film on what appears to be a low budget. Though the narrative is largely dominated by Colman’s personal struggles and the bond with his horse, Clermont-Tonnerre gives us a firsthand look at the harsh realities of life behind bars. She triggers our claustrophobia by putting us inside Coleman’s jail cells, particularly the one he shares with a ketamine addict. We feel like the third person in a room that’s already overcrowded with two. She contrasts that with the slight feeling of freedom Coleman gets when he is allowed to train his horse in an open space.
Schoenaerts stars playing the irritable inmate. Having never seen any of his previous work, I had my doubts. Turns out having never seen him before added to the experience, as he looked and acted like someone who had done some hard time and didn’t plan to get out anytime soon. His ability to go from an angry introvert who only shows emotions by way of destruction to becoming a more mentally stable and healthy person is really what the film is about. That story line doesn’t work without an A-plus performance that can win the audience over, convincing it to root for a violent offender.
The Mustang takes a different look at prison than what we’re used to normally seeing. Rather than focusing on the prison-gang style of survival, Clermont-Tonnere highlights the themes of acceptance, growth and road to forgiveness. She makes the audience feel some empathy for the inmates by sharing their sense of regret in group therapy sessions and showing their personal growth and sense of comradely in a positive way while they train their horses. Although the film doesn’t make survival behind bars a key focus point, it does spend some time on the violent environment that surrounds them. Despite it’s otherwise original narrative there’s a few cliches in the subplot. One involving his ketamine addict cellmate who’s addiction causes issues with both Coleman and his new friends involved in the horse training program. This might be cliche but it is imperative in showing the violent and cruel realities of prison life. Life at this prison isn’t all group talks and horses.
Laure Clermont-Tonnere’s talent is on full display in this impressive debut. This low-budget drama about inner growth is the type of movie they say “they don’t make anymore.” but we still love. The moving story and message attached make The Mustang one of the better movies this year so far.