BEMIDJI-A director making her feature film debut and a Belgian actor who's gone under the radar have teamed up for one of the better movies of 2019.
"The Mustang," directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, is set at a Nevada prison in the heart of America's mountain west. The film revolves around a program at the rehabilitation program operated jointly by the prison and a regional rancher where inmates are allowed to train wild horses and prepare them for auctions.
Enter Roman Coleman, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, a man who's now in the 12th and final year of his incarceration for a domestic assault incident. Filled with regret and aware of his own anger issues, Roman has put himself in a sort of self-exile, hesitant to reintegrate into society and refusing to get out earlier through parole. However, when he's placed into the rehab program and is forced to train a wild mustang, he begins to self-reflect in a new way.
Films featuring an individual or a few inmates in a prison and their lives there, while maybe not a genre, do have a notable place in American cinema, and "The Mustang" is a fantastic entry into the lineup. Familiar territory is certainly crossed here, but the majority of the film stands on its own as something fresh and meaningful.
First and foremost, there's Roman's arc of redemption and rehabilitation. While the supporting characters are certainly a factor, "The Mustang" is very focused on Roman, and it makes the movie feel all the more personal.
The main character's struggles in this movie, whether it's practical with training a wild horse, or mental as he navigates a path of forgiveness, are on full display throughout this picture with great attention to detail, and it makes the movie that much more compelling. Somber sequences where Roman has to speak with his estranged daughter or where he has to become more patient as he works in the field are emotionally powerful.
This of course is greatly aided by a standout performance from Schoenaerts, who does incredible work in the lead role. At the beginning of the film Roman seems like he's almost given up on redemption and Schoenaerts sells it immensely, portraying the character with a sort of hopelessness.
As the film goes on and the character begins to change, Schoenaerts excellently showcases Roman's appreciation of his work with the mustang, while also holding onto fear of reintegration.
This is especially true in one of the scenes where Roman meets with his daughter at the prison and breaks down. The acting is phenomenal here, and overall, is great and should be recognized when award season rolls around.
While this is very much film focused on one character, though, it doesn't mean the rest of the cast doesn't deserve credit. Veteran actor and Academy Award nominee Bruce Dern, for example, is fantastic as the old, grizzled rancher.
Dern's character is aware he's working with inmates and can seem tough as nails. At the same time, though, he recognizes the rehabilitation aspects of the program, and also shows respect to those who earn it. Dern very convincingly brings the character to life.
Another character in the movie was Henry, played by Jason Mitchell, who is one of the better horse trainers in the program. While Henry seems a bit generic at times, being the sort of upbeat contrast to the sorrowful Roman, Mitchell still makes the character his own, lending charm and charisma to make the character above average.
"The Mustang" also features downright gorgeous camerawork. Both the aging, brick and mortar prison facility, as well as the wide open landscapes of the American west, are brilliantly captured by Cinematographer Ruben Impens. The grit and harsh realities of prison, as well as the liberating openness of the outdoors are both displayed here, which perfectly accent Roman's journey.
While "The Mustang" has a few issues here and there, such as a familiar prison story, a few more generic-feeling characters, and a second act that could've been a little tighter, it remains a strong drama. This is true thanks to good direction, cinematography and especially good acting. 4.25 out of 5.