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By Stephen Campbell October 10, 2019
**_From a narrative perspective, there's nothing you haven't seen done before, but it's very well-made and genuinely moving_**
>_Some states have been trying to reduce their recidivism rates through animal training programs. One such program, the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP), is based in Florence, Arizona, a state that spends over $25,000 per inmate per year. Developed in the 1980s in Colorado, WHIP has expanded across the western United States_ [...] _Of the 50 inmate graduates of the program, only two returned to prison, a desistance rate of 96%. In other areas, such as New Mexico, th__e recidivism rate in the past for prisons offering animal training programs was 25% as compared to the state average of 38%._
- "Saddling Horses Can Tame Recidivism and Rein Spending" (Emily Tap); _Economics21_ (May 18, 2018)
> _There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man._
- Winston Churchill
> _Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people._
- W.C. Fields
> _How strange a thing it is that so huge and powerful and intelligent an animal as a horse should allow another, and far more feeble animal, to ride upon his back._
- Peter Gray
The pitch for _The Mustang_ is about as hackneyed as it gets – a dangerous convict who hits out at everything and everyone is given a shot at redemption by working with a dangerous horse who hits out at everything and everyone, and as the man starts to tame the animal, the animal starts to tame the man. So far, so Hallmark Channel movie of the week; a story so familiar, it seems impossible it could communicate anything of value or interest. Except, despite its derivative underpinnings, _The Mustang_ has been made with such craft that it transcends the clichés and works exceptionally well on its own terms, concluding with a scene that should be melodramatically insincere and manipulative, but which instead taps into some unexpectedly genuine emotion. Tonally similar to recent equine-related films such as Andrew Haigh's _Lean on Pete_ (2017) and Chloé Zhao's masterful _The Rider_ (2018), whilst also covering some of the same narrative ground as Michael Mann and David Milch's criminally underappreciated TV show _Luck_ (2011-2012), _The Mustang_ touches on issues such as masculine guilt, penitentiary stoicism, and human-animal trust, but really, this is a character study. And yes, chances are everything you think might happen does happen, but the acting, the cinematography, the characters' emotional beats, and the all-pervading sense of authenticity and respect all contribute to the whole, wherein it turns out the familiarity of the destination doesn't matter that much when the journey to get there is so well executed.
Northern Nevada Correctional Center; Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is serving a 12-year bit and has just been released from a long stint in solitary. Emotionally shut down and prone to violent outbursts, with no interest in being reintegrated back into society and little faith in the possibility of rehabilitation, the prison's psychologist (Connie Britton) can barely get him to confirm his name, let alone open up about his feelings (literally, his only full sentence in the first twenty minutes of the film is "_I'm not good around people_"). However, as part of his sentence, he's required to work, and for the safety of others, he's assigned to "outdoor maintenance", where his job is to clean up the horse dung from the mustangs used in the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP), which sees a select few inmates "gentle" the animals – essentially, tame them so they can be sold at auction. As his estranged daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon) tells him she's pregnant and wants him to agree to sell the family home, Coleman keeps to himself, but is drawn to a barn in which a single horse repeatedly kicks the door. Seeing Coleman's fascination, head trainer Myles (Bruce Dern doing his Bruce Dern thing) decides to give him a chance to work with the horse, although he warns him that it's considered unbreakable, and will likely be euthanized. Naming him Marquis (although he mispronounces it as Marcus), and working under the tutelage of Henry (Jason Mitchell), Coleman sets about attempting to connect with Marquis in a way in which he hasn't connected with anyone or anything in many years.
Executive produced by Robert Redford, _The Mustang_ was initially developed through the Sundance Institute. Written by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and Mona Fastvold (_The Childhood of a Leader_; _Vox Lux_), with assistance from Brock Norman Brock (_Bronson_; _Yardie_) and based on an idea by de Clermont-Tonnerre (the film was inspired by her 2014 short _Rabbit_), _The Mustang_ is her feature directorial debut. As the opening and closing legends tell us, WHIP is real, with prisons across 13 states adopting it, and research showing there is a significant dip in recidivist rates amongst inmates who have worked with the horses (the rehabilitative potential of WHIP was also an important plot point in the aforementioned _Luck_).
Despite the narrative outline suggesting otherwise, _The Mustang_ is not a sentimental film, but is instead rather gritty, with the prison _milieu_ having a sense of lived-in authenticity. With no qualms in telling us that Coleman deserved to go to jail (the nature of his crime is held back until very late in the story), de Clermont-Tonnerre even avoids romanticising the relationship between Coleman and Marquis; they don't have some kind of profound psychic bond, rather they connect emotionally, nothing more, nothing less. Their relationship is not an opportunity for glib esotericism regarding the human condition, it's a simple friendship.
Belying her directorial inexperience, de Clermont-Tonnerre shows a terrific instinct regarding how close or how removed the audience should be at any given moment; at times, she stands back and allows the characters room to breathe, whilst at others, she muscles into the centre of the action. This is especially important when we get to the emotional high points in the third act, as she shows remarkable (almost documentarian) directorial restraint, shooting the film's last few scenes, where the potential for melodrama is at its strongest, in such a way that such melodrama is never allowed to overwhelm the smaller more realistic character beats, with the tone of the _dénouement_ ringing as emotionally true as you could want.
In terms of acting, this is Schoenaerts's film through and through, tapping into the quiet brooding intensity of performances in films such as Jacques Audiard's _De rouille et d'os_ (2012), Alice Winocour's _Maryland_ (2015), and David Oelhoffen's _Frères ennemis_ (2018). The most obvious reference point, however, is his portrayal of Jacky Vanmarsenille in Michaël R. Roskam's stunning _Rundskop_ (2011). Coleman shares a lot of characteristics with Vanmarsenille, and Schoenaerts hits many of the same beats, particularly a barely controlled temper that could erupt at any moment, in much the same manner as Benicio del Toro in Alejandro González Iñárritu's _21 Grams_ (2003). Indeed, the performance is all the more impressive when you consider how little dialogue Schoenaerts has. I can't think of a recent film in which the protagonist speaks as little as Coleman, but the flip side is that every gesture means something, precisely because there are so few gestures to interpret. Pay attention, for example, to his gait, which subtly changes over the course of the film in tandem with his developing arc.
Perhaps the most obvious similarity between Coleman and Vanmarsenille, however, is their connection with animals. In _Rundskop_, Vanmarsenille is repeatedly compared to the bulls his family rear, whether through shot composition or editing. This comparative vein is even more pronounced in _The Mustang_. For example, the film opens on a tight close-up of a mustang's eye, and the first time we see Coleman, it's a BCU of him opening his eyes as horse hooves play on the soundtrack. Later, there's a shot in which Coleman is reflected in Marquis's eye and a scene where both he and Marquis are pinned to the ground, facing one another, with the film cutting back and forth multiple times. Another fascinating composition has a pseudo-split screen effect, with Coleman on one side of the frame and Marquis on the other. When Coleman is confined to his cell, we see him pacing back and forth and punching the wall, recalling Marquis's behaviour in the stall where Coleman first met him. Sure, none of this is exactly subtle, but it is effective, with de Clermont-Tonnerre showing a surprising ability to communicate emotions and themes in a purely visual sense, a talent many directors lack, falling back on dialogue rather than visual language.
And yes, to a certain extent, Coleman isn't so much a clearly delineated character as an archetype, but Schoenaerts leans into the lack of nuance and subtext, giving a layered performance wherein everything means something. His threatening demeanour, for example, is really a shield to prevent others from engaging with him and to suppress his feelings of guilt. However, it's a shield which Marquis has little trouble penetrating. Coleman knows total redemption is beyond him and is unrealistic, and Schoenaerts portrays this not as tragedy, but as something justified. He's helped immeasurably here by de Clermont-Tonnerre withholding of the nature of his crime, so when we find out what he did, it undermines the empathy we've already developed for him, forcing us to question our own instincts and morally relocate ourselves _via à vis_ the character.
Thematically, of course, the main theme is the similarity between man and beast – Coleman and Marquis are both wild and unruly, and both must be brought to a condition of amiability. Their relationship grants de Clermont-Tonnerre a pathway into looking at issues such as masculine guilt and stoicism. However, unlike so many prison movies, _The Mustang_ is not a piece of socio-political criticism; Coleman is not an innocent wrongly convicted, and rehabilitation holds no interest for him. In this, the film reminded me a little of Michael Mann's superb directorial debut, _The Jericho Mile_ (1979), in which Rain Murphy (Peter Strauss) completely accepts his life sentence, and refuses to even entertain the possibility of release. Like Coleman, he keeps to himself, and like Coleman, he has no interest in prison politics.
The other big theme is the danger of losing self-control. Coleman is not a monster, but he is someone who finds it difficult to control his violent tendencies; that's what landed him in prison, that's what got him put in solitary, and that's why he's the only man capable of working with Marquis, who also lacks self-control. A crucial scene in this respect, and one of the best in the film is an anger management class with the psychologist, who asks each prisoner how long passed between the thought of their crime and its execution, and how long have they been in jail. None of the men say there was anything more than a few seconds between thought and deed. The point is clear; a split-second decision has landed then in prison for years. It could be a scene out of any number of prison documentaries (it would have fit right into Jairus McLeary's _The Work_ (2017), a superb documentary about the Inside Circle program in Folsom), and it's a good example of de Clermont-Tonnerre hanging back when she needs to, allowing the actors space in which to work.
Of course, the film is not perfect. For a start, it doesn't matter how well it's put together, for some people, the narrative beats, particularly the penitentiary redemption arc, will just be too familiar. The fact is that we've all seen pretty much everything of which _The Mustang_ is composed, and for some, that aspect will simply be off-putting (this goes double if you've seen _The Rider_). De Clermont-Tonnerre does a fine job of sidestepping almost all of the clichés inherent in this kind of story, but the mere fact that there are so many clichés to avoid in the first place will discourage some people. A bigger issue is a subplot involving Dan (Josh Stewart), Coleman's untrustworthy cellmate. Blackmailing Henry into smuggling ketamine from Myles's storage into the prison, the subplot feels like it's been imported from another film entirely, but in incomplete form – the plot is introduced quite late in proceedings, is only half-heartedly explored, and ends without much in the way of resolution. These scenes are the weakest and the most inauthentic in the film, and really, it's a means to an end; the narrative needs Coleman to be at a certain place at a certain time, and de Clermont-Tonnerre uses this storyline to facilitate that. But, perhaps speaking to her directorial inexperience, there were far more organic ways to have accomplished this without resorting to a subplot that is so tonally divorced from everything around it.
These few issues notwithstanding, I thoroughly enjoyed _The Mustang_. On paper, this is a clichéd social protest film with a classic (i.e. overly familiar) redemption arc, but de Clermont-Tonnerre fashions it into something far more emotionally authentic. Without playing down the nature of Coleman's crime, the film finds a bittersweet groove, with de Clermont-Tonnerre embracing, for the most part, non-judgmental restraint, simplicity, and sincerity, relying on her excellent cast to hit the emotional beats, and more than once communicating meaning via purely visual statements. She's working perilously close to derivative cliché, but she never succumbs, with her intimate direction and Schoenaerts's committed performance allowing the film to remain always authentic, genuine, and respectful. Basing the drama around the real-world WHIP, de Clermont-Tonnerre suggests that, as in other restorative therapies, when you treat someone like a human being, oftentimes, you will find their humanity. And the irony of the film, and its most fascinating and beautifully handled trope, is that Coleman's humanity could only be found, drawn-out, and nurtured by an animal.