The Mustang (2019)

Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

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The Mustang is about Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a prison inmate with an anger problem as he develops an interest in working with wrangled mustangs to “break” them so that they can be auctioned off.  It’s an intimate portrait of the man, reminiscent of recent films like The Rider (2017) and Lean on Pete (2018).  In contrast to those other films, however, it feels like something’s missing here.

That certainly has to do with the type of person Roman is.  He’s a criminal with twelve years in prison under his belt, and though it takes us a while before we learn what got him thrown in prison, it’s not hard to guess that it’s quite severe, possibly even murder.  He’s a stoic character far from in tune with his emotions, as shown most disturbingly when he literally fights a horse.

It’s a horse he names Marcus that he eventually takes to.  Marcus is one of many previously free-roaming mustangs rounded up and then brought to the prison, and it’s the horse to whom Roman is instinctively drawn.  They are kindred spirits, of course, and the analogy here is perhaps a little on the nose but nevertheless effective.  Like Marcus he is imprisoned, and just as we see Marcus repeatedly bang against the limits of his pen, we watch Roman do much the same in his cell.

Films this quiet often feel of their own world, as if they play by a different set of movie rules.  We don’t always get (nor do we need) a long scene of exposition or the classic movie villain.  This being a portrait, we find within the main character all the emotions and shortcomings which will provide conflict within the film.

Except that in The Mustang we do get some of that exposition, in the form of onscreen text, at the beginning of the movie, and while there is no obvious overarching villain, there is a contrived subplot involving ketamine dealing within the prison which turns Roman’s cell mate into the de facto antagonist.  This storyline adds further conflict to a story which already has enough.

Even within Roman’s story with Marcus, so much of it feel a little too neat.  Maybe it is just because of those other recent horse-centric movies, The Rider and Lean On Pete, that much of this feels fresh in my mind.  We find ourselves in the same part of America, at least visually-speaking, and the obvious metaphors of a character’s attachment to the horse (and how that horse represents the character himself) are just as clear here.

It’s a tender story, but I never quite fell for it in the ways I thought I would.  Going back to Roman as a character, his stoicism and temper do make him a challenging character to latch onto, only because he offers so little of a window into his own soul.  Now sure, him gravitating towards the horse implies a little of what’s going on in his head, but it never felt as though this were any sudden character development, instead just the mandated inciting incident.

The subsequent conflicts and resolutions similarly feel as though they have been taken from the template of other films.  Things work because they must, and they don’t for the same reason.  The alternating highs and lows felt more constructed and plot-driven than I imagined for a character study such as this.

And that’s not to say it’s poorly made, it’s not.  The film is beautiful, well-directed, and the acting is top notch, but I think my personal weariness of what felt like movie tropes and conventions goes back to the writing.  The blueprint from which this is all based just feels far too familiar, meaning that when we get to the third act, the conflict feels sudden and manufactured and the subsequent moments of healing feel obligatory.

Within that, however, there is one pretty poignant scene between Roman and his daughter, the only character from his past life we get to see.  They don’t have much of a relationship, for reasons that might already be clear but certainly become so by the end.  The distance between them at the start will of course be broken down, at least to some degree, by the end.  Roman’s scenes with her are meant to measure his emotional progress throughout the movie, and when we do get that scene where he’s able to reflect on and acknowledge the events which got him into prison, well it’s some pretty good sh*t.  What I like most about that scene is that it doesn’t yet let Roman off the hook.  It’s a scene you get in movies all the time, with a character finally letting the dam burst, acknowledging something which has been teased throughout the entire film.  Usually it represents some kind of final test for the character, something to show the strength of an interpersonal relationship before the movie’s climax, but here the scene ends with Roman yet again alone.  He has made progress internally, but that doesn’t always mean you get the things you want, not immediately.

And that’s good, because to genuinely grow on the inside, well that has to be apart from external rewards.  It’s like getting good grades because you want to get good grades, not because your parents have offered you incentives for a good report card.

Up Next: Five Feet Apart (2019), The Sisters Brothers (2018), They Live (1988)

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