In The Mustang, director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre brings nuance to what would otherwise be a straightforward premise: a violent and insubordinate convict at a remote Nevada prison becomes a part of an untamed horse training program, wherein he learns to save himself. These horses are a part of The Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse Conservation Program. This population control program in particular is aimed at auctioning the horses off to the highest bidder and euthanizing the horses that aren’t broken in time.
Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Roman Coleman, a man who is most comfortable in solitary confinement and has enough anger management issues that they may as well make it official and give him his own cell in that block. He is not reformed, and he isn’t trying, but there is a lot of work to be done at this facility and someone needs to clean up after the horses. Enter the biggest, baddest, stompin’-est horse they could have rounded up. Roman and this horse make eye contact and the horse attacks first.
Now, I’m no horse girl nor am I a cowboy, but I’ve played Red Dead Redemption and know you should never mess with a horse. They sense everything. And Roman learned that the hard way. Everyone warned him that the horse was unbreakable, so he did his best to get into that horse’s personal space. It should’ve been the end, but as it turns out, hardheaded people and animals can learn to take care of one another.
The parallels between the horse and Roman are heavy, but that works in the film’s favor. Neither of them can be free unless they rehabilitate or are tamed, but behavioral therapy takes a lot of time and work. In the prison environment, it’s only made harder. Though some people may ignore the film’s larger condemnation of the prison system, it is clear that the filmmakers actually did the research before making this film. For the horses, it’s almost taunting to have them live outside but caged in. The inmates are in the middle of nowhere, so the opportunity to work with horses is highly coveted and an important aspect of their prison. They have the chance to ride and train horses, without cuffs and out in the world. Yet, the horses are being trained to become police and border patrol. They are reinforcing the system, not competing in dressage.
The film is very well cast, and every actor has a moment to shine. Roman’s pregnant teenage daughter (Gideon Adlon) visits at various stages of her pregnancy. Adlon acts with Schoenaerts as though he really did irrevocably end her childhood. The visiting room has a fake vacation wall for photographs, and it’s crushing to watch person after person stand with their incarcerated loved one when just out the front door is an amazingly scenic view. They won’t be able to enjoy it together. While we don’t know how long Roman’s original sentence was, we can assume that his many in-prison infractions have significantly added to his 12 years of time served.
Even though Roman is completely antisocial at the start of the film, The Mustang has a ton of heart at its center. Roman becomes a horse girl so quick it’s a wonder what he could have accomplished if he never committed crimes and was able to raise his daughter. It’s a story that is all too common to have a firm answer and a happy ending. But for just a few minutes, there is still light.