I’m a sucker for a horse movie. Growing up, classics like “Black Beauty” and “Spirit” and low-budget family flicks like “Virginia’s Run” and “Dreamer” were staples in my cinematic diet. In my preteen years, I was one of those “horse girls.” I took riding lessons after school, begged my parents for a pony and, admittedly, even had a few pieces of horse-themed clothing in my closet. Though I’ve since sworn off ever pulling on another pair of riding breeches and I no longer dream of having a pet horse named Stormy or Star, I’m almost always up for a horse movie. While a bit heavier than the lighthearted, inspiring films from my childhood, “The Mustang” was a pleasant surprise with its impressive acting and unimposing, quietly profound story.
For the past 12 years, Roman Coleman’s (Matthias Schoenaerts “Far from the Madding Crowd”) life has been suspended in the soul-crushing limbo of prison. Existing in a state of blankness and solitude, as he puts it himself, Coleman is far from the man he used to be. His emotionless daze is interrupted, however, when he gets an opportunity to join a government rehabilitation program to curb the overpopulation of wild mustangs by training them and readying them for resale. Despite his lack of experience, Coleman slowly forms a connection with an especially wild mustang, Marcus. Through his relationship with Marcus and the other inmates in the program, Coleman rediscovers a slice of the purpose formerly lost within the void of the hopeless and hostile prison environment.
Matthias Schoenaerts was 100 percent made for this role. There are few actors who can give a masterful performance without relying on the crutch of dialogue and Schoenaerts proves he is one of them. Fully embodying Coleman’s disinterest in human interaction, outbreaks of aggression and complicated relationship with his daughter, Schoenaerts expertly conveys both his character’s quiet, subdued exterior and emotionally heated and broken interior.
We would guess that the interactions between Coleman and Marcus would look more like soliloquies than dialogues. But they aren’t. Instead of sharing words, Coleman and Marcus share movement. Through the way Marcus positions himself away or toward Coleman and the sounds of annoyance or gestures of affection he makes, we don’t miss the dialogue because we realize we don’t need it. This synchronized body language established between Coleman and the mustang is a form of communication in itself, and it allows us to perceive Marcus as an actual character, with feelings and an attitude, rather than as just an animal. What’s more, the relationship is refreshing, straying from the over-affectionate and cheesy characteristics that are typically highlighted on screen between horses and humans.
Aside from Schoenaerts’s acting, in tune with the low-key vibe of the film, the use of setting to showcase an unseen side of prison life is especially impressive. Throughout the film, there is a tug of war of sorts between sweet and bitter. We follow the pivotal friendship between Coleman and Marcus, contrasted with the bleak reality of the prison system. In one moment, we are witnessing a tender or humorous exchange between Coleman and Marcus, and in the next we are sobered up through clips of an anger management session, where close up shots of prisoners solemnly revealing the contrast between the mere seconds it took to decide to commit their crimes with the years they now face as punishment. The juxtaposition between these two sequences builds on the larger theme of confinement that encompasses the film. Outside on Marcus’s back, Coleman literally holds the reins in his hands. He is in control. But, back within the prison walls, Coleman is incapacitated, with his hands tied behind his back. This later image is one that emerges again and again in prison films, a vision of handcuffs, convicts in orange jumpsuits, dismal living conditions and knifings in the yard. Though still including these conventional elements, “The Mustang” presents an unfamiliar twist to the prison narrative, painting a picture that is far more dynamic and, by extension, more humanizing.
Maybe it’s the former horse-girl in me talking, but this is, quite simply, a beautiful film. Though it revolves around the bond between Coleman and Marcus, at the center are deeper topics of broken families, the desolation of the criminal justice system and the human necessity for purpose. Delivering quality acting, powerful visuals and an untold story, “The Mustang” is not your average horse movie and it’s well worth the watch.