The Movie Waffler New to Netflix - THE MUSTANG | The Movie Waffler

New to Netflix - THE MUSTANG

the mustang review
A prisoner forms a bond with a horse.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern, Gideon Adlon, Connie Britton, Josh Stewart

the mustang poster

Humans aside, no other animal is as entwined in the fabric of cinema as the horse. The invention of motion pictures was prompted when pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge was hired to settle a bet regarding whether or not all four of a horse's hooves leave the ground as it gallops, requiring a fraction of time to be split into a series of frames that would recreate the horse's movement. Early on, the western became one of the most popular genres, and cowboys became inseparable from their trusty steeds. In the past couple of years, American indie cinema has used the horse as a device to tell coming of age stories in the likes of Lean on Pete and The Rider, and this trend continues with director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre's The Mustang, in which a violent prisoner experiences a late emotional maturation after forming a bond with the titular beast.

the mustang review

Matthias Schoenaerts brings his well-honed strong, silent schtick to the role of Roman, an inmate 12 years into a long stretch for a crime left initially unmentioned. Withdrawn into his shell and spending most of his time in solitary confinement as a result of not being "good around people," Roman's spirit has been well and truly broken, leaving a hulking husk of a man who has lost all hope. When his daughter pays a rare visit, Roman mistakes another young woman for his own flesh and blood, so estranged the pair have become, and he warns her never to come see him again.

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Despite his protestations, Roman is released back into the general population and assigned outdoor work duty shovelling horseshit on an adjoining ranch where rounded up mustangs are tamed by inmates so they can be sold at auction. Hearing a mustang beating its hooves against the shed its confined to, Roman goes to investigate, drawing the ire of ranch head Myles (Bruce Dern), who punishes Roman by assigning the convict to break in the horse.

the mustang review

Under the tutelage of fellow inmate and by now expert horse trainer Henry (Jason Mitchell), Roman struggles to tame the horse, which he names 'Marquis', but amid his frustrations is a respect for the wild animal, whom he likely views as a kindred spirit. Eventually, man and beast bond, giving Roman a new lease of life. But other forces are at work to drag Roman down again in the form of his cellmate (Josh Stewart), the leader of the prison's white supremacist gang, who blackmails Roman into stealing Ketamine from the ranch with the threat of having his daughter killed.

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Westerns have long used the horse as a prop for insular men to open up with their feelings. John Ford would often have his macho characters reveal their emotions while riding on horseback, allowing them to get mushy without having to make eye contact. Here, Roman is a tightly clenched human fist who unleashes a wellspring of tears when Marquis finally acknowledges him, two prisoners in their own ways rubbing their heads together and basking in the warmth of another creature's affection. It's an emotionally affecting moment that's held back somewhat by the film's decision to keep the nature of Roman's crime ambiguous, as we're forced to ponder if he is worthy of our sympathy. At this point, for all we know, Roman's crime could range from killing another man in self defence in a bar fight to murdering a child in cold blood.

the mustang review

While Roman connects with his horse, another tense bonding occurs not between man and mustang, but between Roman and Myles, the latter initially dismissing the former as beyond redemption until Roman proves his worth by saving Marquis during a storm. In small roles, Dern has done some of his best ever work in recent years, and his craggy features and vulnerably broken voice are ideally suited to the tough on the outside, warm and understanding on the inside man Myles is gradually revealed as. The final scene Roman and Myles share sees them skirt around an important issue that has brought them together, using coded language that prompts a moment of self-sacrifice from Roman, who can't atone for the hurt he's caused the human species, but just might be able to make a difference in an animal's life.

The Mustang is on Netflix UK/ROI now.