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  Mustang, The Neigh Bother
Year: 2019
Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Stars: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern, Gideon Adlon, Connie Britton, Josh Stewart, Thomas Smittle, Keith Johnson, Noel Gugliemi, James McFarland, Sean Patrick Bridges, George Schroeder, Gregory Williams, Joseph Bartlett
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Coleman Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts) has been in prison for twelve years, and for much of that time he has been in isolation thanks to his violent tendencies where he can not only fly off the handle at the drop of a hat, but can do a lot of damage too if he is not managed. He has spent enough of a period of isolation that he can now be reintegrated back into prison life with the other inmates, despite his misgivings and belief he is better off alone, and when his pregnant daughter (Gideon Adlon) arrives on a visit to get him to sign some papers for her, he makes it clear he has no interest in any further contact with her. Yet this is a prison with a special programme for inmates...

The clue is in the title, as well as an introductory bit of captioning which explains that wild horses, or mustangs if you like, are an issue in the United States thanks to their numbers being so hard to control and the regions they can run free dwindling thanks to humanity's expansion and environmental cackhandedness. Therefore programmes like the one in this prison exist to train the beasts after they have been rounded up (we see a helicopter doing just that in the opening minutes), where jailbirds are recruited to look after their own horse for a few months, whereupon the animals are sold at auction and put to work, which may not be better than running free, but there is an alternative.

That alternative is humanely destroyed horses, so you can imagine the domestication idea is preferable, especially if you are a horse. The Mustang was the first feature directed by actress Laure De Clermont-Tonnerre, who had already made a short on the subject which was expanded into this; although technically a French-Belgian co-production, it had a peculiarly American flavour, largely thanks to the sweeping vistas we often saw and a mostly American cast. Schoenaerts was one of Europe's most muscular actors, literally and figuratively, and he did not disappoint with a controlled performance of physicality reined it (as it were) by the incarceration he has suffered, occasionally exploding.

We do not discover what has happened to place Roman behind bars until a good distance into the film, a scene that was among the best this had to offer. There were selected sequences where the cast got to show what they were made of which genuinely gave what could have been as distant and moody as its protagonist a real sense of character, and that opening up emotionally to his daughter was genuinely powerful and superbly performed by the star. Elsewhere, Bruce Dern was invaluable doing his ornery old bastard act as the head of the programme who recognises mixing with horses could do Roman a lot of good, but is not about to let anyone walk all over him, least of all a man with a violent past that could erupt back to the surface at any moment. Jason Mitchell too was very fine as an inmate who uses humour to get by.

However, all this came with some caveats as for every excellent scene that truly owned its position in the movie, there were a bunch of clichés that were more indebted to a cinematic representation of life as it is lived, bad times and good, than it did for anything more realistic. It was a pity, although you could understand some narrative telescoping was necessary: they couldn't show hours and hours of Roman winning the trust of his designated horse, for instance, it would just not be engaging, so a shorthand had to be employed instead. More regrettable than that were the clichés you hoped films had outgrown by now, such as what happened to the only major African American character, or the conclusion that would have been problematic rather than a solution to the issues suffered by man or beast alike. But overall, The Mustang was worth watching for its great cast and an unusual take on the prison drama, as far as that went - you were unsurprised to see Robert Redford listed as producer. Music by Jed Kurzel.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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