If you took the premise of The Mustang at face value, it would be easy to dismiss. It’s the sort of film grounded in a seemingly too easy metaphor: a rage-ridden inmate finding peace in taming the soul of an equally contentious horse. There’s any number of clichés that could derail such a premise, and in this case they sometimes come close, but the combination of a steady hand from French director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (making her debut here) and a layered, fascinating performance from Matthias Schoenaerts turns this seemingly rote melodrama into a quietly beautiful tale of moral redemption.
The hulking behemoth brought to life by Schoenaerts, Roman Coleman, seems at first glance like the most stereotypical prisoner character you could imagine: he’s covered in prison tattoos, plagued by a short temper, and isolated in more ways than one. An opening scene between Coleman and a prison psychologist (Connie Britton) makes it immediately clear he doesn’t play well with others and has no intention of changing that any time soon. They’re all characteristics we’ve seen a thousand times before, but the key to the character (and arguably the film itself) is that Schoenaerts injects a harrowing loneliness behind his eyes. His performance makes it clear that Coleman’s confinement is every bit as internal and self-inflicted as it is literal.
Desperate to find something that peaks his interest, the psychologist places Coleman into a rehabilitation program where inmates are trained to break and prepare wild mustangs for auction. He is quickly entranced by a particularly difficult horse that is kept separate from the others due to its aggressive nature, and soon the two enter into a bond that begins to crack Coleman’s icy exterior.
While the story often goes in the exact direction you expect it to, occasionally to a fault, Clermont-Tonnerre’s patience with the material gives it a quietly affecting, meditative quality that elevates it beyond the tropes it seems so dependent upon. The film certainly stumbles at points, from stereotypical moments of prison violence to a rehashed drug-smuggling subplot, but it’s all effused with an ethereal sensibility that distracts you from the shortcomings of its narrative devices.
Much of that comes from behind the camera, where Clermont-Tonnerre and cinematographer Ruben Impens find beauty in the harsh lands of the American West. Every shot of the film sings, whether it’s Coleman clinging to the last bits of sunlight in his cell or him riding the open plains with his horse. Impens, who created some of the most striking imagery of the decade with his work in 2016’s horror wonder Raw, dials back his flashier methods to let the landscapes speak for him. The film’s use of natural light is stunning, giving an otherworldly energy to a genre so often defined by muted colors and a generic style.
Clermont-Tonnerre proves herself a more than capable director, using her script as an excuse for capturing the West as a mystical, near silent land of lonely plain and even lonelier hearts. Unlike many prison dramas, where the claustrophobic nature of cell blocks digs movies into holes of cynicism, Clermont-Tonnerre resists the temptation of dwelling in the darkness. She knows the best way to hammer home the nightmare of incarceration is to let Schoenaerts portray that pain in his performance, then pay off the trudge through that emotional difficulty with transcendent moments of relief, often expressed through the complex beauty of our relationship with nature.
None of it would work if Schoenaerts wasn’t up to the task, but the frequently underrated actor brings his tortured character to life with nuance. Even in the moments where the script wanders into cliché territory, he never makes an obvious choice with how Coleman should react. It’s the sort of performance that’s almost entirely in the eyes, and Schoenaerts is the master of using a lack of dialogue to his advantage, saying a thousand words with a single glance rather than with something showier. It helps that he has wonderful scene partners in Jason Mitchell and Bruce Dern, who bring humanity to two roles that similarly could be one-note characters in the hands of less adept performers.
The Mustang may not be the most original film you’ll see this year, but where it lacks in fresh ideas it soars in its clear, confident vision. It’s a haunting, effective debut that transcends its own tropes, turning out a tale of the relationship between man and animals that captures its spirit better than most.