It’s rare when a young female filmmaker scores a breakout like Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre did when she unleashed The Mustang at Sundance 2019. Now audiences can see what all the shouting is about. The ticking time bomb of male rage — dangerous if you get too close — may seem like an unlikely topic for a French actress to tackle in her feature debut as a director. But don’t expect this firebrand to stay corraled by sexist preconceptions. Clermont-Tonnerre comes from a place of defiance, and her fearless instincts surge through every frame. Each time you think you have this movie pegged, it’ll knock you for a loop.
On the surface, the film is a prison drama mixed with an animal-bonding movie — think The Shawshank Redemption meets The Black Stallion. Roman Coleman (an incendiary, indelible Matthias Schoenaerts) is a hardened convict who can’t exist within the system. “I’m not good with people,” he says. Talk about an understatement. Released from solitary confinement, Roman blinks into the light like a caged gladiator entering a combat ring. He bristles when a shrink (Connie Britton) at his Nevada correctional facility sentences him to a state-mandated rehabilitation program involving horse therapy. These are the facts, per the movie: There are more than 100,000 wild mustangs roaming free in the U.S., many about to be euthanized in the name of overpopulation. A few hundred of them are sent to prisons where those that can be are broken and trained by inmates, then sold at public auction.
It sounds like a cornball setup for love at first sight between a convict and his mustang, who eventually will take on human characteristics that deny the animal’s feral DNA. In short, the usual Disney-movie bullshit. Not this time. Clermont-Tonnerre worked at the Sundance lab to develop a sparse, sharp script with Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock. Roman and the horse he calls Marcus don’t meet cute. In a scene of wince-inducing cruelty, Roman flies into a rage and smashes the steed’s ribs with his fists.
By now you’ve probably guessed that Clermont-Tonnerre and her dynamite actors are allergic to anything predictable. Bruce Dern is all grizzled authority as the old-timer in charge of the horse-therapy program. And the reliably superb Jason Mitchell plays a fellow inmate who serves as the manager’s right-hand man, one whose ingratiating smile reveals a man who’s learned how to game the system. Everyone stands alone, including Roman’s pregnant teen daughter (a terrific Gideon Adlon), who can’t crack the shell of a father still scarred by the crime that put him in prison. The film withholds the core of Roman’s torment until the end. But Schoenaerts silently tells you everything you need to know in his quietly devastating performance. Best known as Marion Cotillard’s bouncer lover in Rust and Bone and the Putin-esque uncle of Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow, the Belgian actor hits you where it hurts. You’ll cry over his final scenes with the horse. But the tears here are honestly earned, and they sting like hell.
Comparisons will be made to The Rider — another man-meets-horse saga directed by a woman (Chloé Zhao). But Clermont-Tonnerre’s savage plunge into the ferocity and fragility of the male ego is its own animal. What Roman and Marcus find in each other is an understanding that’s forged in loneliness. The give-and-take between the two beasts is emotionally crushing. The movie missteps with a drug-sting subplot, but quickly recovers it footing, and the soaring poetic majesty achieved by cinematographer Ruben Impens and composer Jed Kurzel ease the hurt in this open wound of a movie. Above all, The Mustang marks the birth of an exceptional new filmmaker, a woman hellbent on bucking Hollywood gender bias. By any standard, that’s cause for celebration.