‘The Mustang’ review: Matthias Schoenaerts film mines classic American themes

Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Roman Coleman in Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre's "The Mustang."
Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Roman Coleman in Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s "The Mustang." Photo Credit: Varela Media

‘The Mustang’ 

Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruce Dern, Gideon Adlon

Rated R

The symbolism charges on four, sturdy legs in “The Mustang,” a grim look at classic American icons and recidivism rates.

OK, that second one isn’t as sexy as wild horses beneath snow-peaked mountains, but this is a message movie as much as it is a drama. Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Roman Coleman, a cold, walled-off convict bounced into a new high security prison after time in solitary. It takes a lot to get him to talk and when he does, he grunts things like “I’m not good with people.” His new work detail is shoveling horse manure; he doesn’t mind being outside.

This particular prison in Nevada is part of a program run by the Bureau of Land Management. To help with the dwindling mustang population, wild horses are captured, tamed and then auctioned off, usually to police bureaus. The “tamed” part is where the prisoners come in. But there’s one horse in the group that seems uncontrollable.

I think you see where this is going. Roman trades his shovel for a saddle and becomes part of the group. It’s run by Myles (Bruce Dern), a hard but fair man who seems to have been put on this earth to give everything – man and beast – a second chance. There’s also Henry (Jason Mitchell) who eases Roman into the cowboy way. “Smiles are free,” Henry reminds Roman, and Mitchell is the type of performer who can pull this off.

Alas, no one can say a line like “if you want to control your horse, first you have to control yourself!” and get away with it. Clichés and predictability are definitely holding the reins in “The Mustang,” which is a shame because it is such a unique setting. (And beautifully shot by cinematographer Ruben Impens).

As Roman begins to connect with his horse (named Marquis, but mispronounced Marcus) there are some gestures toward thawing relations with his daughter (Gideon Adlon). We learn that, 16 years ago, Roman’s domestic abuse was responsible for the death of her mother, so there may be no getting back in the saddle for these two.

“The Mustang” revels in very American themes like “the Outlaw” and freedom of movement. No matter what criminal acts they’ve done, everyone stops to sing the National Anthem. Interestingly enough, the filmmakers are all from elsewhere. Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre is French and her co-writers Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock are Norwegian and British. Matthias Schoenaerts is Belgian. It’s hard to resist a ride in the old west.