Movie Review: The Mustang (2019)
The most searing part of the movie for me was the beginning, when wild mustangs in the western U.S., living their life, are rounded up by the feds as part of population control. Helicopters and jeeps drive them toward fences that funnel them into pens and eventually horse trailers. They buck, rear, cry out. At prisons, they’ll be broken and sold at auction—usually to the police. If they can’t be broken, or if no one buys them, they’ll be put to death.
First-time director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre gives us the mustangs’ perspective throughout: from freedom to inexplicably not; from a natural life to a process that’s mechanized. There’s an inexpressible horror to it. The proper reaction to it is the cries of animals.
Then it just becomes about us again.
Second second chance
Going in, I assumed “The Mustang” took place in the Himalayan steppes. The poster screwed me up. That orange jumpsuit looked like red Tibetan robes to me, while Matthias Schoenaerts’ shaved head made him look monk-like. Plus I missed the blurred fence in front. Plus I’m too stupid to know mustangs are endemic to North America.
Schoenaerts’ character, Roman Coleman, is as solitary as a monk, he just exudes no sense of peace. The opposite. He moves through prison like he hasn’t taken a breath in 12 years. He’s the bomb waiting to go off. So not exactly what you’d expect from a horse trainer.
I also assumed he would find himself, and a gentler, more patient nature, with the horses. There’s some of that, but the movie’s conceit mostly goes another way. It’s in the tagline: “Untamed Souls. Kindred Spirits.” Both Roman and his horse, Marquis (mispronounced “Marcus”), are untamable, and I guess the horse recognizes a kindred spirit; so even after Roman, frustrated by other matters, punches the horse in the chest, the horse forgives him. Days later, he nuzzles him. I didn’t buy it.
There are three main settings/storylines:
- Outside with the horse program, run by Myles (Bruce Dern)
- Visits with Roman’s daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon)
- Encounters with his cellmate, Dan (Josh Stewart)
The horse program is rehabilitation and purpose. The visits with the daughter, in conjunction with group therapy (led by Connie Britton), are about coming to terms with past crimes. They’re confession and the possibility of redemption. In the cramped cell with Dan lies the potential for future crimes.
Since Roman works outside with the horses, he has access to ketamine, an anesthetic which can be used to get high; and Dan blackmails Roman to get it by threatening Martha. He says he knows where she lives, he has people on the outside, etc. He must be connected since Roman goes along with it even though it looks like he could take Dan out with one punch. Roman has already spied his happy-go-lucky horse mentor, Henry (Jason Mitchell of “Mudbound”), coating extra T-shirts with ketamine and wearing them inside, and Roman does the same.
The problem with the movie is the disconnect between these storylines. After the blackmail threat, for example, Martha arrives for a visit. One assumes Roman’s going to warn her about Dan. No. He wants to finally open up about his crime—turning Martha’s mother into a vegetable. The confession is painful for him (he looks wrecked afterward) but there’s no redemption (Martha doesn’t forgive him), and, worse, the threat from Dan goes unmentioned. Shouldn’t that be his main concern? His daughter's safety? Rather than his own redemption?
Then Dan kills Henry—slitting his throat in the yard. Was Henry smuggling for a rival? Was it simple racism? We never find out. But in retaliation, in their cell, Roman chokes Dan. To death? Who knows? And if Dan is connected, are there repercussions from a gang? Got me. At the least, we assume there will be repercussions with the horse program. That privilege will be taken away from Roman, and he won’t be able to show Marquis at auction, and maybe Marquis will be put to death. That’s the trade-off.
But there’s no trade-off because there are no repercussions. Roman participates in the auction as planned. It’s the second second-chance he’s been given—the first was after he punched Marquis—and he still blows it. He keeps scanning the crowd to see if Martha shows up. He’s not focusing on the task, which is Marquis; he’s seeking redemption rather than responsibility. For a time, though, he gets away with it. The horse is spirited but falls into line; then a helicopter spooks Marquis, and Roman is thrown and dragged and winds up with a concussion. Because of that, the horse program is shut down and Marquis will be put down. So Roman sets Marquis free. He sends him back into the wild west.
In the end, looking out through the small slot of his solitary window, Roman sees the horse on the other side of the barb wire fence. I assume this visitation is in his mind’s eye. Otherwise, it’s dumb.
Oh, right. He also gets some forgiveness in a letter from Martha. Like we give a shit.
Best supporting actor
It’s a shame. There are good moments. I liked the group-therapy scene when the men talk about how much time lapsed between the thought and the crime. (For most, it’s barely a second.) I liked the horse-training team riding across the plains in their DOC jumpsuits. (It suggests a great western/prison break flick that might be made.) I liked the scene where Marquis keeps turning his backside to Roman—shunning him. (That horse is a helluva actor.)
But the movie, which was developed through Robert Redford’s Sundance labs, combines the gritty with the unrealistic—all the stuff above that I don’t buy—and it’s a bad mix.
Worse, the longer the movie progressed, the less I liked our lead. Roman is on a path to redemption, which can be long and tortured, but he keeps lunging after forgiveness rather than owning up to responsibility. He becomes less of a man. That’s not any path to redemption I'd like to take.