Saturday 21 September 2019

Reining in a criminal mind

In this handsome prison drama, a furious inmate’s life is changed by an encounter with a mustang, says Paul Whitington

Matthias Schoenaerts stars in The Mustang
Matthias Schoenaerts stars in The Mustang
Connie Britton in The Mustang
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

With over two million citizens incarcerated at any one time, and almost five million on probation or parole, the US has the largest standing prison population in the world. A stubbornly Old Testament attitude to crime and punishment was exacerbated by the disastrous anti-drug legislation of the Reagan era, and the 'tough on crime' showboating of the Clinton administration, which imposed absurdly harsh sentences on minor offenders and swelled prison numbers to breaking point.

Once you're in the system, the chances of ever becoming a useful member of society diminish by the second, and there are grim echoes of slavery in the way inmates are housed and shackled. In French director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre's The Mustang, however, we're given a ray of hope. It's set in a Nevada desert prison, and based on a real programme that uses wild horses to help rehabilitate offenders.

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Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a man in need of urgent rehabilitation. When we first meet him, he's been in jail for a decade or so, and has spent much of it in solitary confinement. He walks around with his head bowed, bull-like, and bristles at the prospect of human contact. He's just been transferred to the Nevada jail, and when an endlessly patient counsellor (Connie Britton) tries to encourage him to become involved with the prison community, he stares at her, dead-eyed.

Ever since he first broke through in the Belgian film Bullhead, Schoenaerts has specialised in playing furious, catatonic men, and Roman may be the most furious yet. His empty eyes light with fury whenever anyone challenges him, and when we later discover the nature of Roman's crime, we realise that much of this loathing is directed against himself. He makes no friends and seems unreachable until a chance encounter in the prison stables offers a glimmer of redemption.

A rehabilitation programme which encourages inmates to help train wild mustangs has produced a lot of horse poo, and poor Roman is gloomily shovelling it when he's drawn to a locked door a horse is furiously banging. Inside is a beautiful grey-brown mustang which has been dismissed as untameable. Roman opens the door, and stands looking at the beast until he's interrupted by the programme's furious manager, Myles (Bruce Dern), who gives him a stern dressing down.

But when he calms down, Myles realises Roman has a way with horses. He pairs him with the furious mustang, and gradually these two angry animals find common cause. It doesn't happen instantly and at one point, Roman becomes so frustrated at the horse's refusal to cooperate that he starts punching it in the chest. But slowly, the animal begins to learn, and Roman discovers it also has an awful lot to teach.

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre's film is not exactly original: it plays with the tropes of prison dramas and westerns, and it's not hard to imagine a young Clint Eastwood playing the part of Roman. The wild man/wild horse metaphor is not hammered home subtly and The Mustang's plot is rather loose around the edges. A subplot involving the theft of horse tranquilliser for the purposes of resale seems tacked on for effect, and without giving too much away, a brutal cell attack late on seems to go miraculously unpunished.

But what The Mustang has in spades is sincerity and a director good enough to wring the beauty out of a necessarily grim tale. The roots and nature of male rage and violence have been explored before, but can never be explored enough, and Schoenaerts is excellent as a seething man whose imposing bulk and intimidating tattoos cannot hide the fact that, inside, he's broken. He reveals his pain in a magnificently rendered speech to his estranged daughter, who's only come to visit Roman to get him to sign a legal document.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to catch the timeless poetry of the American west, and De Clermont-Tonnerre does it brilliantly in this film's sweeping, wordless opening sequence, as a herd of quietly grazing mustang prick up their ears at the sound of an unfamiliar, distant roar. It's a helicopter, which swoops and dips across the screen as it bullies them towards a waiting trap. This moment alone makes The Mustang worth watching.

At the Movies: Your guide to all the week’s new releases

A Million Little Pieces (16, 113mins)

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s gritty addiction drama is based on a controversial 2006 memoir by James Frey, and stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson as James, a recklessly unhappy young man whose crack and alcohol addictions have almost killed him by the time he’s forced to check into a treatment centre. At first, he angrily refuses to accept the fact that he’s an addict, but tentative friendships and the struggles of fellow inmates will eventually persuade him to pull himself together. Though by no means perfect and needlessly melodramatic at times, A Million Little Pieces packs an emotional punch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson is compelling in the lead.

The Informer (15A, 113mins)

A British-backed film based on a Swedish novel, The Informer is set in New York and stars Joel Kinnaman as Pete Koslow, a US Army veteran and former jailbird who’s become an informant for the FBI. He’s on the verge of cracking a Polish drug cartel when a sting goes wrong and an undercover NYPD cop is killed. Pete’s FBI handler, Wilcox (Rosamund Pike) tells him he’ll have to go back to prison if he’s to finish the job, but the sinister drug lord Klimek (Eugene Lipinski) has spies everywhere. The Informer is a badly written and inefficient thriller, and snatches of decent acting are quickly smothered by cliché.

The Souvenir (15A, 114mins)

Cool, detached, wryly observant, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is a beautiful study of the vagaries of the English upper classes. It’s the early 80s, rendered by bad haircuts, bland decor, and snatches of Robert Wyatt and John Cooper Clarke. Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda, who makes a frosty appearance) is Julie, a young, posh film-maker. At a London party, she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a suave minor civil servant. He turns out to be a supercilious nit-picker who manoeuvres his way into her life and expertly sows self-doubt. The Souvenir is a sly delight and Burke is a wonderfully odious villain.

Films coming soon...

It: Chapter Two (Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, James Ransone, Bill Skarsgard); Aniara (Emelie Jonsson, Bianca Cruzeiro, Arvin Kananian, Anneli Martini).

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