Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Movie Review: The Mustang

The Mustang *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre.
Written by: Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock and Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre.
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts (Roman), Jason Mitchell (Henry), Bruce Dern (Myles), Gideon Adlon (Martha), Connie Britton (Psychologist), Josh Stewart (Dan), Thomas Smittle (Tom), Keith Johnson (Elijah), Noel Gugliemi (Roberto), George Schroeder (Officer Peters).
Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts is one of the great actors currently working. He is an impressive physical specimen – over six feet tall (he seems taller) and with a mass of muscles, he looks like he could be a mob enforcer – and many of his best roles use that physicality to great effect. And yet, there is always an underlining tenderness to him. He plays men who do a great job of hiding his humanity under his muscles and physicality – but is someone who is quietly sensitive on the inside. He just doesn’t want to let others in. He’s an actor who seems capable of exploding either into violence or tears at any second. His breakthrough role – in the Oscar nominated Bullhead – is a perfect example of what he does best. He is a steroid taking cattle farmer, hiding a secret from those around him. I thought of that role a lot while watching his latest film – The Mustang.
In the film, Schoenaerts play Roman – a convict in jail for over a decade, and not getting out any time soon for a horrific act of violence that happened in a split second, and he has wanted to take back ever since. He has been transferred to a new prison – he was in isolation in that prison, and seems to be on his way there in this new one. He doesn’t get along with people he tells the prison Psychologist (Connie Britton) – and will barely answer her questions. He is a powder keg of rage just waiting to explode.
His redemption, as it were, comes from an unexpected place – when he is taken in as part of the prison horse training program. This is a program, where the government rounds up wild horses – and the ones that aren’t immediately killed, and sent to prisons, where the prisoners will try and train the horses – and then auction them off, mostly to police departments, etc. There is something about the animal that Roman first sees inside his pen, banging to get out, that he connects with.
Yes, the central metaphor between Roman and the horse is an obvious one – they are both animals capable of violence and tenderness, who do not want to be caged. But it’s handled beautifully in the film that doesn’t beat you over the head with the metaphor. It’s part of the advantage of having an actor like Schoenaerts as your lead – he’s capable of showing so much, while seemingly doing nothing. Outwardly, he hardly ever lets Roman let his guard down – to show weakness. It sneaks in a little bit when he sees his daughter in the visitor’s room for example – or when he scans the crowd at the big final auction looking for her. But he never articulates it – Roman is possibly incapable of doing so. But it’s there.
There are other subplots that don’t quite work as well – Roman’s junkie cellmate who wants him to smuggle out horse tranquilizers for example – a subplot meant, I think, to pay off in a big emotional moment late in the film involving the one friend among the fellow inmates Roman has made (played by Jason Mitchell). But it doesn’t add much to the proceedings. Bruce Dern fairs better as the head of the program – although admittedly, he’s basically just doing the cranky Bruce Dern thing he’s been doing (quite well to be honest) since Nebraska.
This is the first film by director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, and she does a beautiful, understated job in directing the movie. She has the right instincts here – in terms of showing, and not telling, and gets Schoenaerts to deliver one of his best performances to date. He is a legitimately great actor, who I really hope starts finding better roles for himself. In a way, he’s a throwback – directors in the 1970s would have no problem finding a use for him, but today, it’s mainly been in the European films he’s made – Bullhead, Rust & Bone, A Bigger Splash – that has given him his best work. But he’s showing just what he is capable of – and The Mustang is a great example of it.

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