I did not see a horse in an orange jumpsuit in The Mustang, but short of that, the movie spares no effort comparing captured horses to incarcerated men.
You’d think that less-than-subtle approach would get old after awhile (or after 10 seconds), but it somehow never goes stale in this nicely acted and ultimately moving drama.
The Mustang starts, appropriately enough, on the open range, where a helicopter is driving wild horses toward a funnel of fencing that leads the animals into a makeshift corral. From there, it’s on to a federal penitentiary, home to some violent inmates, a handful of whom are selected for a program designed to foster rehabilitation by teaching them to tame and train horses.
Connie Britton has a small, vivid role as a counselor who interviews candidates for the program. Operating on what we sense is mostly instinct, she selects Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts), one of the prison’s most dangerous and incorrigible prisoners, though his initial interest is mild at best.
His enthusiasm does not increase when he gets his first assignment — piling up horse dung with a pitchfork. But a noise catches his attention. The source is a dangerously volatile stallion, separated from the herd and held in a metal holding tank, where he kicks the side of the enclosure violently and repeatedly.
Roman is transfixed by this kindred spirit, and the movie is almost glibly eager to draw parallels between the horse and the man — also dangerous, also held in isolation, also categorized as being a hard case beyond the reach of intervention or reform.
Schoenaerts, though, has the time (and the skill) to add context to our understanding of Roman, confined by an institution and by his own self-hatred. He is guilty of a horrific crime; we come to see his violent prison outbursts as a means of incurring additional punishment he feels he deserves. He doesn’t want parole. He wants to annihilate himself.
The movie explores that chronic impulse, and its origins. In one riveting scene, Britton’s character asks prisoners (including Roman) guilty of violent crimes to state the length of their sentence, then to describe the time they spent thinking about the crime they committed. Typical reply: Twenty years, two seconds. She’s making a point about impulses and consequences — a small step toward self-evaluation that is amplified in Roman’s case by his growing bond with the horse he is feeding, training, and ultimately riding (under the guidance of crusty wrangler Bruce Dern, and with help from fellow inmate Jason Mitchell).
The Mustang is based on a real-world program that pairs inmates with wild horses taken from overgrazed federal land. It works. The rate of recidivism for all prisoners is 70 percent. The rate for those in the program is 15 percent. The Mustang helps us understand why. We see (through Schoenaerts’ performance) how Roman reconnects with a living thing, then with life. How he can start meaningful conversations, with the resentful daughter (Gideon Adlon) who visits him in prison.
There is the potential here for a facile trajectory of redemption that director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre smartly resists. Nothing in this movie goes smoothly — character arcs reflect the unpredictability and intransigence of untamed animals and of deeply flawed human beings. As a consequence, the small miracles that do occur in The Mustang feel real, and well–earned.
The Mustang. Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. With Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruce Dern, Connie Britton, Jason Mitchell and Gideon Adlon. Distributed by Focus Features.
Running time: 96 minutes
Parents guide: R (violence)