“The Mustang” starts with a good idea and makes it better—an incorrigible prison inmate learns to tame his own wild rages by taming, and training, a wild mustang. This is a debut feature by a French filmmaker, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, who’s clearly at home in the United States. However many films you may have seen about the bond between humans and horses, here’s one that will move you anew, and deeply.
The premise is grounded in fact. Over 100,000 mustangs still roam free across the West. They compete with cattle that graze on federal lands, so each year thousands are rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management. Most of them remain in long-term holding facilities and some are adopted or euthanized, but a few hundred are sent to states participating in the Wild Horse Inmate Program to be trained and then sold at public auction. “The Mustang” is set in a Nevada prison, where a hard case named Roman is serving an 11-year-sentence for domestic violence—he’s played with startling ferocity by Matthias Schoenaerts. Bruce Dern is a prickly old cowboy, Myles, who runs the prison’s horse-training program. “This one is particularly crazed,” Myles says gleefully, pairing untrained man with presumably untrainable horse. He might just as well be warning the horse about Roman, but he’s talking about the explosive equine that will make Roman’s life a misery.
“The Mustang” doesn’t let him off the hook with sentimental formulations. Beneath his hard exterior lies a profoundly damaged psyche that will not yield to flashes of kindness from Myles, or some elusive prospect of rehabilitation. Roman doesn’t think of himself as a horse whisperer in training; he’s a horse hater who wants nothing more or less from his terrified beast than capitulation.
This may sound too grim to bear, but the film is improbably beautiful, with a beauty that grows out of its integrity, its scrupulous attention to telling detail. And the filmmaking is a revelation—this is not just a good first effort, but a first-rate achievement by any measure. The director clearly watched such relevant classics as “The Black Stallion” and “The Misfits,” yet she found a laconic style that’s all her own. She might have developed the material as a documentary, and a lot of it feels as it had been found, rather than rehearsed and staged. But she’s made a fiction film in the best sense, a succession of piercing insights and moments of grace in a tough-minded tale that comes to a satisfying conclusion. And for those who remember “The Black Stallion” for its peerless, wordless encounter between the young boy and the wild horse horse on the beach, be assured that “The Mustang” doesn’t waste words either. Whenever Roman rises to eloquence, he’s in the saddle.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.