THE MUSTANG (96 R)
The story of Roman Coleman, a violent convict, who is given the chance to participate in a rehabilitation therapy program involving the training of wild mustangs.
Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Writers: Brock Norman Brock, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Stars: Josh Stewart, Connie Britton, Matthias Schoenaerts
Closed Captioning and Descriptive Narration Available
“The Mustang,” a film about a program in which convicts work to train to wild mustangs so they can be sold at auction. While it’s a real program that has seen notable success in the way its participants often fail to become repeat offenders, it’s obviously a subject matter that’s just ripe for cliched storytelling. Even the Sundance description made me roll my eyes: “Roman must learn to tame not only the mustang but also the beast within.” Seriously? Another film that portrays the male prisoner as an animal waiting to be tamed is not exactly what the world needs right now. And yet “The Mustang” is evidence of how new life can be breathed into clichéd concepts with the right focus on character and setting, and trust in your performers.
Matthias Schoenaerts leans into his strong, silent archetype as Roman Coleman, a resident of a maximum-security prison in Nevada that participates in a Wild Mustang program. Every year, mustangs are rounded up and trained by prisoners to take part in an auction. Of course, Roman first bristles at any sort of structure to his day, especially one that involves shoveling horse shit, but an irascible trainer named Myles (Bruce Dern) and a fellow convict (Jason Mitchell) soften Roman, as does the wildest horse in the program. Roman even learns how to talk to his daughter (a great Gideon Adlon, who is going to be a star very shortly).
It sounds like clichéd screenwriting 101 but it works because of how deliberately Clermont-Tonnerre handles the material. She allows scenes that would have been easy moments to strike sentimental chords to instead play out organically, and she lets the movie breathe, becoming more believable and moving in the process. “The Mustang” doesn’t feel the need to rush anywhere, allowing Roman to develop into a fully-formed character instead of just an archetype. It builds instead of races, knowing that it’s the accumulation of minor character beats in a film like this one that really matter. Seek this one out when it opens in March.
– Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com