Sunday 22 September 2019

The Mustang review: 'Laure de Clermont-Tonnere’s film is not exactly original but what it has in spades is sincerity'

4 stars

The Mustang
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 United States 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-Tonnere’s Mustang, however, we’re given a ray of hope: it’s set in a Nevada Desert prison, and based on a real program that uses wild horses to help rehabilitate offenders.

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, Mr. 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 till a chance encounter in the prison stables offers a glimmer of redemption.

A rehabilitation program which encourages inmates to help train wild mustangs has produced a lot of horse poo, and poor Roman is gloomily shoveling 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 untamable. Roman opens the door, and stands looking at the beast until he’s interrupted by the program’s furious manager, Myles (Bruce Dern), who gives him a stern dressing down.

But when he calms down, Myles realises that 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-Tonnere’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, andThe Mustang’s plot is rather loose around the edges. A subplot involving the theft of horse tranquiliser 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 Mathias 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.

As a young man Bruce Dern was a rangy character actor with a flair for playing villains, but in later life he’s come to specialise in playing ornery old men whose grumpiness is usually a cover for kindness. He’s done it a lot, by God is he good at it, and Myles is a wonderfully grumpy creation, a vetern rancher who swears and shouts and points his finger a lot but alone seems capable of acknowledging the inmates’ humanity.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to catch the timeless poetry of the American west, and Laure de Clermont-Tonnere 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 0worth watching.

(15A, 97mins)

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