Review: The Mustang (2019)

The debut feature film of director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, The Mustang is the tale of a violent prisoner named Roman (played by Matthis Schoenaearts) who begins working in a horse training program soon after his release from solitary. He ends up forging a bond with a mustang that refuses to be tamed and soon finds himself assigned as its main trainer.

This film carries a certain obvious symbolic quality; two beings confined by a system they will never fit into. Roman recognizes Marcus’s fear and frustrations, the horse constantly kicking the walls of his cage and approaching any presence with hostility. Part of this feels too on-the-nose, though it can also be effective in its simplicity.

I would categorize this in the same way as a film like Fighting With My Family – it’s a familiar sort of story presented in a technically streamlined manner. There works let everything take a backseat to the story and performances. The Mustang feels constrained by its lack of cinematic vision, letting the success of scenes fall largely on the shoulders of Schoenaearts.

This film tries to tackle elements of the contemporary western and prison drama genres, and it doesn’t quite succeed at juggling the two. Compare this to McQueen’s Hunger, another debut film that, while carrying greater stakes, is a similarly small production. McQueen would find a resonant image and linger on it – de Clermont-Tonnerre seems to simply present the necessities and glide along. The most important difference is how McQueen reinforces his actors; that seventeen minute scene highlights Fassbender’s capabilities as an actor. Here, Schoenaearts’ performance is merely captured.

The Mustang rarely seems to consider the power of the camera – there are beautiful shots for sure, but they’re in the most obvious places. We open on a scene of wild horses, and the view is stunning as they laze about and then run in a panic as a helicopter herds them into a fenced pasture. There is this great shot of Roman riding Marcus, the camera at an almost head-on, steady angle. That moment really underlines Roman’s sense of cautious wonder, and it’s a shame so many other scenes have such rudimentary presentation.

Any time we cut back to the prison drama, a lot of the artistry seems to fade. In the first scene, Roman remarks that he doesn’t mix well with people, and the same seems true of the narrative. The tension of these segments don’t add much – there’s an awful cellmate, an estranged daughter, racial tension. Everything here is so familiar. I guess a man and his horse is also a bit familiar, which really proves the idea that how you tell a story is more important than what story you happen to be telling. The Mustang is a much better contemporary western than it is a prison drama.

I feel like I’m being a bit harsh on this film – when a film narrowly misses out on greatness, it’s easy to fixate on what went wrong. This movie is still loaded with stellar sequences – I particularly liked an early scene where Roman gives up on his attempts of training Marcus as the horse simply turns his back. Roman sits down, and the horse casually walks over and rubs his face against the man. It’s this gentle, somewhat funny moment, and I wish the film fell more into these rather quiet observations.

Honestly, the best part here is the chemistry between Roman and his horse. If a film is going to fall back entirely on a single actor, they did a good job picking the right man. This is the type of film I could imagine picking up a few stray Best Actor nominations and absolutely nothing else. While I wish de Clermont-Tonnerre did more to reinforce his performance, Schoenaearts really captures a man who relies on silence, not because he has nothing to say but because social engagement risks frustration that leads to violence – this is a man who lives in terror of his own reactions. His quiet growth as he bonds with this horse really shines through.

There is a lot about The Mustang I find worthy of praise – I just wish certain elements didn’t fall so hard into the familiar. Thankfully, it ties everything up in an unpredictable manner, though it again fumbles with a very obvious closing shot. Either way, it’s strong enough to suggest Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre could become a great director with a bit more consideration for the craft.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

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