Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Mustang Takes Its Horse To Self-Improvement Road And Rides Until It Can't No More

When we start The Mustang, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a prisoner who has thrown himself into the shackles of isolated solitude. He doesn't talk to anyone, not even his daughter on the rare times she comes to visit him, and he's basically accepted, in his own way, the idea that the rest of his life is doomed to this miserable solitary existence. While off on a chore consisting of shoveling horse fecal matter, Roman Coleman comes across a wily mustang horse that's apparently impossible to train. Stumbling upon this horse leads Roman to discover a group at this prison consisting of prisoners, under the watchful eye of Myles (Bruce Dern), learning how to train horses as a form of personal rehabilitation.

In the process of training this horse, whom he dubs Marquis, Roman gradually starts to improve as a human being, though it's not a straightforward tidy march towards personal growth. Much like fellow Sundance 2019 title Brittany Runs a Marathon, The Mustang is sharply focused on how any kind of personal change is gonna be a long-term project relying on small adjustments. You gotta prepare for steps backwards in addition to steps forward. To wit, Roman, early into his horse training process, lashes out at Marquis after a devastating conversation with his daughter while his cellmate coerces Roman, under threat of hurting his daughter, to get him drugs only people involved with the horses have access to.

Filmmaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, working from a script she wrote with Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock, does superb work capturing how Roman's gradual growth as a human being is a complex path to self-betterment. Taking the time to place emphasis on those more regretful detours is what makes Roman's journey so interesting to watch while also making the character seem all the more human. He's been so set in his isolated ways that it'd be incredibly unrealistic for him to suddenly take a 180 degree turn into sainthood the first time he gets onto a horse. The scripts nuanced approach to its lead character is reflected wonderfully in a lead performances from Matthias Schoenaerts.

The role of Roman Coleman must have been a daunting one to take on. The character starts out so detached from other people, how do you make him engaging to the audience? Meanwhile, reflect his gradual change as a person over the course of the movie, that's a tricky tightrope to walk. Turns out, though, Schoenaerts is game for it all. In the opening sequences, he makes Roman Coleman like the lead character of Ikiru, a "mummy" just walking through the routines of life in a vacant manner. There's a haunting quality to the way Shoenaerts portrays Roman Coleman through this portion of the story and he's able to maintain that element of the character even as Roman begins to get a new lease on life through training horses.

I especially love how Schoenaerts portrays Roman trying to talk to his daughter in a more personalized manner for the first time. Talking in this style to another person is clearly difficult for him, Schoenaerts makes it look like Roman is struggling moment-by-moment to even piece together words to say. It's an absolutely great sequence depicting what great work Matthias Schoenaerts does in a complicated performance that's critical to making this movie work. Supporting performer Bruce Dern also makes for a great wizened presence in the motion picture and I love that Dern is able to convey a sense of authority that makes this 83-year-old man seem like a genuinely imposing threat to the physically brawny Roman Coleman.

Clermont-Tonnerre and cinematographer Ruben Impens lend The Mustang a visual style that's quite striking. Since they're telling a story set in a grimy prison located in a Nevada desert, neither of them have a lot of color to work with when composing the films shots. Smartly, they decide to lean into the more limited color palette to instill a sense of visual anguish reflecting Roman Coleman's interior psyche. Impens captures wide shots of the vast deserts surrounding the prison that convey a quality of endlessness parallel to the similarly limitless amount of regret Coleman feels over his past. Craftily executed camerawork also proves to be a crucial element in making the finale involving a distraught Roman and Marquis as emotionally moving as it is. After that climax, The Mustang closes out not with a tidy happy ending suggesting all problems have been solved, but a quiet final scene offering some hope for the future. It's the kind of fittingly realistic conclusion that's perfect for a movie like The Mustang which heavily emphasizes how self-improvement doesn't happen in a day.

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