There’s a worrying trend in modern cinema and that is that many of the independent offerings coming out of both the US and Canada – and, indeed, from Europe (we blame Brexit) – isn’t being seen quite as much as it used to. Whether it’s distribution costs, a saturated market with the whole calendar year seemingly clogged full of blockbusters, or other factors, films like The Mustang aren’t getting anywhere near as much traction as you’d hope. Netflix is helping, for sure, but it seems the trend won’t be stopping soon, so we should be very thankful that this one is getting a cinema release over this side of the pond.
Roman (Matthias Schoenarts) is a convicted felon serving a 12-year sentence for the brutal attack of his partner, leaving her with irrevocable brain damage and subsequent detachment from her and his daughter. With seemingly no interest in either rehabilitation or reintegration, he is placed on outdoor maintenance so that he can remain as isolated as he chooses. Soon, though, he is assigned onto program whereby prisons train wild Mustangs ahead of their sale to local authorities and border control outposts. His anger and short-wired temperament still gets the better of him but, as time passes, he soon realises that his horse is of a similar ilk, and the two begin to bond under the ever-watchful eye of ranch owner Myles (Bruce Dern).
The narrative, like the harsh, dusty grounds of the Nevada desert that surrounds the prison, is well-worn and much navigated but that doesn’t ever deter people from still treading through its harsh terrains. Here, co-writer/director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre tries to breathe new life into both the redemption story and the Western, subverting it just enough to always feel surprising and fresh, even if the ideas feel overly familiar and obvious. There’s a delicate balance of raw emotions and melancholy here, and while some moments don’t quite pack the punch that’s intended, many of them are still heartfelt and poignant, fueling this redemptive tale to its touching climax, all the while shot through with quiet grace by cinematographer Ruben Impens (Raw)
Schoenaerts, whose performances in Disorder, Rust & Bone and Far From the Madding Crowd, have heightened his status across the globe in the last few years, he is still strangely under the radar somewhat, but this is him at his most mercurial, and possibly even best yet: bulking and bruising like a WWE fighter, Roman’s mind, soul and body have been battered beyond recognition, his anger threatening to explode at any moment such are the demons rolling around his shaven head. But Schoenaerts’ deft, delicate portrayal is electrifying and mesmeric at almost every turn and while his nails the gruff, brooding exterior it’s in the interior moments that he really shines.
While The Mustang isn’t breaking new ground, it’s heart and poignancy shins brightly throughout, helping to create a beautiful if flawed tale of redemption, unlikely friendship and the power of healing that’s both touching and witty in equal measure. And propelled by another staggering performance from Schoenaerts, this is a Sundance entry that’s well worth a ride in the saddle.
Scott J.Davis | [rating=3]
Drama | USA, 2018 | 15 | 30th August 2019 (UK) | Universal Pictures | Dir.Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre | Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruce Dern, Connie Britton, Jason Mitchell