THE MUSTANG – Review by Diane Carson

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The Mustang dramatizes taming horses—and men.

Taming wild animals—human or equine—demands incredible patience as demonstrated in director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s The Mustang. The film draws on actual Wild Horse Inmate Programs that pair hard-core prisoners with recently captured mustangs. A designated inmate trains his assigned horse for an upcoming auction, the sale money funding the continuation of the Mustang project.

In this dramatization, at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, the hard-core, anger-fueled Roman Coleman, in for domestic abuse, is paired with an equally aggressive, volatile mustang that he names Marquis. Without any previous experience with horses, Roman flounders, resorts to his habitual ferocity, and, predictably but appealingly, tames Marquis as well as his own explosive fury. In one of the most telling lines, the supervisor Myles tells him, “If you want to control your horse, you first have to control yourself.” As a horse owner for decades, I reaffirm that observation which resonates as the heavily tattooed, 12-year inmate Roman learns that sensitivity achieves the desired response, not brute force—not with Marquis.

Similar compositions for caged men and horses add a nice metaphorical commentary. Sensational scenes include a ferocious storm and several mustang training exercises; though, unfortunately, Marquis’ critical moments accepting a saddle and a bridle are absent. Subplots inserted for added context flounder, too abbreviated and haphazardly injected: animosity between inmate factions; Roman’s pregnant, alienated 16-year-old daughter’s appeals to him; a cellmate’s threats of harm to her if Roman doesn’t steal the horse tranquilizer ketamine.

Nevertheless, as Roman, Matthias Schoenaerts gives a convincing, frightening performance as a feral beast himself. Bruce Dern offers a complement as Myles, alternately cajoling and correcting inmates. As solid, Jason Mitchell plays Henry, an effervescent, experienced inmate trainer tragically caught up in the ketamine trouble. Shot almost entirely on location at the decommissioned Carson City Nevada State Prison, the claustrophobic cells contrast starkly with the wide-open plains and gorgeous snow-capped mountains. The Mustang idealizes that environment, but it’s also easy to admire a program that, in many instances, saves an individual and a horse.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.