Early spring is an odd season for the movies.
As soon as the Academy Awards are presented, some studios slow down their releases while others showcase films originally intended for awards consideration, while audiences wait for the blockbuster summer season. That makes this time of year an ideal time to discover small, independent films that might otherwise get lost in the movie shuffle.
“The Mustang” is such a gem.
This meaningful look at how working with a wild horse can help a man confront his demons has a lot to say about the potential of humanity. And while it’s clearly a movie with a message, filmmaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre resists any urge to overuse her platform to lecture. Instead she creates a compelling character study of a lonely, angry man who resists every opportunity to connect with others. Until he meets a horse.
We get the idea, from the moment man and horse meet, where this movie may travel. And de Clermont-Tonnerre knows we know. So she dispenses with a lot of backstory that might fill a film in lesser hands. Instead, from the start, she focuses on Roman, a man with a temper, a man deeply hurt, a man incapable of forgiving himself for whatever he may have done earlier in his life. While we only hear suggestion of what landed him in prison, we know, from the start, he is one mean guy. And that anyone who gets in his space may take a risk.
When Roman surprisingly gets the opportunity to join a prison’s program to tame wild horses — an actual program in prisons in the West — he finds himself in a situation that demands stepping outside himself to connect with something else, even if that something is a horse captured in the wild. While conversations with his daughter may frustrate, interactions with the horse begin to help Roman discover what he may have hidden for so many years. And we’re given front row seats to a man relearning how to be himself.
As touching as the story can be, “The Mustang” is not a feel-good movie in the spirit of “Cool Hand Luke” from the 1960s or “The Shawshank Redemption” from the 2000s. Instead this is as candid a film as could be made about such a man. Grounding the movie’s authenticity is the magnetic performance by Matthias Schoenaerts as Roman, an actor with eyes that convey volumes, a performer who needs few words in a script to tell a complete story. The actor resists any temptation to overplay Roman’s troubles or subdue his bitterness. And he manages to make Roman likeable while bringing to the surface the character’s weaknesses. Supporting Schoenaerts, in a strong cameo role, is screen veteran Bruce Dern who reminds us how he can command a movie camera.
Yes, like every spring at the movies, this one is a bit odd. Thank goodness for the chance to see small films, and for the Sundance Film Festival providing an annual showcase for independent movies. That’s where “The Mustang” got its start. And we are richer because it did.