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Alan Charlton

The Mustang puts redemption in the saddle

Voices April 10, 2019

Matthias Schoenaerts in The Mustang. The forced relationship between convict and horse is one of transformative affection, and the result is a joy to watch, writes Alan Charlton. (Focus Features) 

Movie audiences are no strangers to films in which the central story line involves a human’s relationship with a horse. However, The Mustang certainly avoids most of the formulaic ingredients of such films; it is certainly no National Velvet or The Black Stallion. Rather, The Mustang is a gritty, occasionally violent, and constantly engaging story of a convict with massive anger issues and his enforced involvement with a wild mustang.

Background to all of this is a true-life story of which many are likely to be unaware. There are far too many wild horses for the herds to be sustainable in their natural environment which stretches across several of the United States. Therefore, each year hundreds of these wild horses are rounded up. Some, sadly, are euthanized; others are corralled and sent to various federal penitentiaries where inmates participate in the “breaking” or “gentling” of these horses, preparing them for auction with the horses going to a range of buyers from private owners to border guards.

Drawing on this reality, The Mustang tells the story of Roman, a convict who has served 12 years in prison, originally for violently assaulting his wife, and who still erupts into anger at any perceived slight.

However, a counselor sees in him a man who can be redeemed and recommends him to the horse-training program. Like many inmates who have participated in the program, Roman has no experience with horses, but he soon recognizes in the animal to which he is assigned a reflection of himself.

The film is largely concerned with the development of the relationship between horse and trainer. Both are wild; both express anger violently; both are apparently beyond redemption.

However, slowly each comes to respect and become attached to the other, so that their forced relationship becomes one of transformative affection. The result is a film which is a joy to watch.

Matthias Schoenaerts, a Belgian with a flawless American accent, as Roman turns in a beautiful performance which is at once able to register the brutal and the sensitive sides of the character.

He is supported by a fine cast, many of which are former inmates who participated in the program when incarcerated, headed in a lively fashion by Bruce Dern as the crusty head trainer. At the same time the narrative is expanded to show the development of Roman’s fraught relationship with his daughter Martha (a lovely performance by Gideon Aidon).

Under Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s sensitive direction, the elements of the story are brought together in a satisfying whole, including moments of violence and moments of stunning beauty.

Equally important to the success of the film is the gorgeous cinematography which superbly captures the spectacular scenery against which the film is set, while depicting dramatically and vibrantly the interiors. In its less than 100 minutes of running time, The Mustang takes the audience on a gripping, multi-faceted story.

While this is a film which has, as one might expect, considerable objectionable dialogue, it is, despite that, a film which might well be one to share with teenagers.

In showing the human side of the inmates, with all their flaws, it is above all a film of optimism as it also makes apparent that if those who have broken the law can be treated with dignity and allowed to engage in worthy remedial programming, they too can welcome the chance to become contributing and praiseworthy members of society – an altogether appropriate message for this Easter season.