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“The Mustang” Is A Deeply Moving Character Study

Lost souls of the animal and human variety coming together in a quest for salvation has been depicted on film numerous times before. Rarely, however, has it also been a prison movie where this story is being told. That’s where The Mustang comes into play. This flick never tries to be anything more than it is, but what it is somehow becomes beautiful. In the wrong hands, it could have been unrelentingly bleak and almost impossible to sit through. The threat of violence looms around every corner. Yet, what stays with you here is the passion that can be had through dedication. What stays with you is the power of redemption. All told, what stays with you is how good a work The Mustang truly is.

The movie is a prison drama, centered on the story of Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts) an inmate serving time for a violent crime. We don’t know exactly what initially, but it’s clear that it was bad. He has visits with his daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon), but there’s a wall between them that he knows is all his fault. Life is tough for him, deservedly so. A chance at redemption arrives when he’s given the opportunity to participate in a rather unique rehabilitation therapy program, one that involves the training of wild mustangs. Run by Myles (Bruce Dern), the program is a welcome release for the man. While it comes easy for other convicts like Henry (Jason Mitchell), Roman struggles to connect with his mustang. Frustration boils over into more violence, but when he’s all but given up, the horse nuzzles him, signaling the first hints of change. To say more would be to spoil the power, but this film doesn’t take any easy ways out, that’s for sure. Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre directs and co-writes with Brock Norman Brock and Mona Fastvold. Supporting players include Connie Britton, Noel Gugliemi, Thomas Smittle, and Josh Stewart, while the cinematography is by Ruben Impens. Jed Kurzel composed the score.

I can’t say enough about the performances here. Dern and Schoenaerts are powerhouses here. The former turns in supporting work that is a “Bruce Dern” performance to a T, while the latter is quietly devastating. For Dern, it’s the type of role that he’s absolutely aces in. The way he delivers his dialogue, whether it’s what is on the page or if it’s one of his “Dernsies” is immaterial, it all feels organic to the character. He feels like he’s stepped out of the real world and on to the celluloid. As for Schoenaerts, he takes his part to places you’ll never expect. Where he is in the first frames and where he is in the final ones are miles apart. Watching him get there is an absolutely hypnotic and undeniably powerful experience.

The final shot is easily my favorite of the year so far. Without spoiling anything, it states the film’s thesis better than any monologue or speech could hope to do. It’s simple, yet heartbreaking and will wreck you. The Mustang is building to it the whole way, mixing deep masculinity with a tender soul. The movie sneaks up on you with its ending, which only makes the conclusion that much more powerful. Without it, the final product would still be good. With it, it’s actually able to approach a higher level, coming close to true greatness. It doesn’t quite get there, but this is still one of 2019’s better offerings to date.

Starting on Friday, audiences who open their heart and open their mind up will be in for something profound when The Mustang opens. It’s the sort of thing that potentially got lost in the shuffle of the most recent Sundance Film Festival, but now that it’s hitting theaters, it can hopefully find an audience. If Focus Features knows what they have on their hands, they’ll remind voters about it, and in particular the work of Dern and Schoenaerts, come the fall. This isn’t the sort of movie you’re probably expecting, but take comfort in that. Whatever you were expecting, this is far better.

Be sure to check out The Mustang, in theaters this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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