We’re told at the outset of “The Mustang” that there are about 100,000 wild mustangs still roaming the U.S., but that their numbers are plummeting, in part because more land is being privatized every year. In reality, and in the film, a small number of these horses are selected for a program in which prisoners gentle the horses (for the uninitiated, “gentling” means working with a wild horse until it becomes responsive to a trainer’s commands), to be eventually sold to pay for the cost of conserving the mustang population. So, yes, the boldly obvious metaphor in both the film and real-life program is that the prisoners gentle the horses, and the horses “gentle” the incarcerated men.
You could reasonably take issue with “conserving” the environment by taming and selling wild horses instead of simply keeping large parts of the U.S. wild. Still, the program is successful; prisoners who participate in the Wild Horse Inmate Program exhibit significantly lower rates of recidivism than those who don’t, according to AP News. So, training horses might, as you’d expect, be a pacifying counterbalance to the endless dehumanization of being a prisoner.
The mark of the film’s success, meanwhile, is that neither the obvious metaphor at its center nor the many worn-out tropes in which the story partakes, make the film as a whole feel hackneyed. (For the record, though, those tropes include the broken man fighting himself, the violent prison drama, the horse-loving western, and the stoic male redemption story.)
That all these facts of the plot don’t collude to make the movie feel clichéd is a testament to all its other elements. The directing is clean and never too obvious (Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre directs), the acting is rarely over the top (Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Roman Coleman), and the writing itself usually avoids truisms (Clermont-Tonnerre co-wrote with Brock Norman Brock).
The story hones in on Roman, who is in the 12th year of his sentence at a prison in Nevada for a crime the audience doesn’t learn about until late in the film. The action first picks up when Roman approaches a small, dark shed containing an especially furious, supposedly “unbreakable” horse pounding furiously on the doors. It’s the first of many images of the violence that Roman and the horse share, and it’s also the first of many moments which remain moving despite being predictable.
Soon, Roman and the horse are cautiously circling each other in a corral under the eye of Henry (played well by Jason Mitchell), one of the program’s more experienced riders. Roman can’t control the horse, and ends up literally punching the animal until he rears up and kicks Roman to the ground. Both angry beasts end up pinned in the dust, and the viewer is left momentarily disgusted by Roman, who just exhibited exactly the sort of blind, idiotic violence by which men have learned to express emotions they can’t make sense of. (That’s also, as we learn, the kind of violence that got Roman into prison in the first place.) But, lying in the dust face-to-face with the horse, Roman recognizes a familiar mixture of rage and tenderness, and he becomes determined to gentle it.
The following journey and its concomitant dialogue feel stale only occasionally, as when Henry, the jocular expert, advises Roman: “If you wanna control your horse, first you gotta control yourself.” One wishes the film had left that obvious theme implicit. And, late in the film — once it’s clear that Roman has been transformed by his horse — Roman’s daughter asks incredulously, “You really think ridin’ horses is gonna change anything?” Yes, we do, because that’s the whole premise of the movie. In the hands of a merely decent screenwriter, lines like these would litter the whole script. Instead, Clermont-Tonnerre and Brock keep it feeling sincere and original.
Schoenaerts’ acting also saves the film from cliché. Although his character is in many ways written to be the archetypal stoic, wounded man, Schoenaerts makes the trope believable, and even enjoyable. Schoenaerts pulls it off in part by carrying himself as if Roman were barely keeping a torrent of emotion at bay. In other words, although Roman is usually trying to look like he feels nothing, Schoenaerts has him fail in that effort just often enough to let the audience in.
Nothing and no one in the movie backs away from sincerity, and if it occasionally pays the price for such openness, well, it was worth the risk. The audience gets to watch the wary, elegant reopening of a long-closed heart. And no matter how many times we’ve seen that story, it remains moving when it’s done as well as it is here. Suffice it to say that at Kimball’s Peak Three Theater, both the old guys in cowboy hats and at least one amateur reviewer were teary-eyed by the end. Though of course, being men, we all hid it.