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Movie Review: 'The Mustang'


Two things I don’t really know anything about are horses and prison. So I can’t speak to the level of realism in The Mustang, the feature directing debut from French actress Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. But I can speak to the emotional resonance of the movie, and there, it’s kind of a knockout.

As the movie tells us at the beginning, there are many thousands of wild horses roaming the American West, and the government works to control their population as we continue to encroach on their territory. One part of that is the periodic capture of a few hundred of the horses, who are then taken to be trained by prisoners in order to be sold at auction. The movie opens with such a roundup, as a helicopter sweeps over the landscape, corralling the horses into a holding area. I don’t know for sure, but this certainly appears to be really happening, and is particularly frightening, as we’re washed with the horses’ terror.

We then meet Roman, an inmate in Nevada, and who embodies a kind of defective masculinity—he’s mostly incapable of expressing himself, except through occasional explosions of violence, sort of like Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, though much more internally focused. Unlike LaMotta, Roman’s blow-ups are few, as he spends most of his time boiling below the surface. (There’s even a wall-punching scene that quietly echoes the one in Scorsese’s film.) Eventually, Roman falls in with a group at the prison that is training wild horses, and he begins the volatile process of learning how to work with one particularly troublesome stallion.

Roman is played by the Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who I didn’t remember seeing before, and if you’d told me he was an actual convict and an untrained actor, I would have believed it. That’s how true the performance rings. He says so little, but conveys so much rage, frustration, fear, and, eventually, some amount of tenderness, all through his eyes.

Now, yes, the central metaphor of The Mustang­—an untamed man tries to train a wild horse—is a bit on the nose, and there are a few prison-movie clichés, and I have no idea how realistic the horse training scenes are, but de Clermont-Tonnerre is so confident in her directing that almost none of this is a flaw. Her camerawork is beautiful, especially when she’s just letting horses be horses, and she knows enough to let Schoenaerts carry the rest with his powerfully understated performance. The Mustang may or may not reflect the way the world is, but it absolutely feels real.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.