By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
Cinema verite-style tales of men and horses in the modern West are having a bit of a moment the last couple of years between Lean on Pete, The Rider, and now The Mustang.
Just… don’t assume this is a Mom & me viewing experience and you’ll be fine…
The Mustang tells the story of a hardened prisoner (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is transferred to a prison with a wild mustang training program- a real program in several states in which prisoners are trained to take wild mustangs and domesticate them for resale. Affecting horse and man rapport-building and prison tropes aplenty ensue.
This film’s impressive run in theaters this spring has posed it as the indie hit of the year so far, and it’s easy to see the attraction- it’s excellently shot by first-time feature director Laure de Clermont-Tonnere and DP Ruben Impens and acted by a cast featuring familiar faces like Bruce Dern and Jason Mitchell and non-professional actors who mix in well.
Matthias Schoenaerts is the soul of the film, however, returning to his high of Bullhead in crafting a outwardly physically strong and intimidating but inwardly conflicted, confused, and broken man, and then showing his renaissance into someone who may again be able to live in society with others through his tentative relationship with this wild, undisciplined horse he’s training. Here’s hoping this film is the full-sized breakout for him that Bullhead or the underrated The Drop should have been.
Clermont-Tonnere also has a very steady hand with pacing and showing instead of telling, producing an affecting plot and strong characterization with a minimum of brushstrokes. To be able to handle these small, intimate moments alongside the flashier, hard to imagine how they were actually shot horse training scenes shows a filmmaker who is one to watch going forward.
This is true acting bravery right here.
For all of Clermont-Tonnere’s control, she does belie her unfamiliarity with her subject material in places, namely prison dynamics that jump out as unrealistic, like how Schoenaerts grabs his daughter’s hands and jumps up without any prison guard reacting or even yelling at him not to touch his visitor (even visiting a friend in minimum security prison, I was admonished not to touch them after a carefully observed greeting hug).
How utterly and conveniently shoddy the security perimeter is, which ties directly into exactly the ending you’ve been expecting since the beginning of the film, also strains credulity. What kind of obviously violent criminal/max security prison is this?
Security seems a tad lax here.
While the most common comparison point for this film has indeed been Claire Zhao’s The Rider, The Mustang lacks the authenticity of that film. Clermont-Tonnere is too willing to fall back to cliche in her screenplay, and all the valiant acting by Schoenaerts and hand-held camerawork doesn’t quite cover for the fact that nothing much happens in the film than what years of horse dramas and prison dramas haven’t conditioned you to expect.
The Mustang is a handsomely produced and acted prison and man and his horse drama that falls short in delivering something truly original.
The Mustang (2019) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever anyone smokes
Take a Drink: every time someone on screen does
Take a Drink: every time anyone asks for or considers asking for an autograph
Take a Drink: every time Ko hits on the ladies or otherwise bothers them
Do a Shot: when the ladies give a quintessential Hong Sang-soo film review